Roots of 2007 Judicial Crisis in Pakistan

SharafCompared to other democracies, Pakistan has never been a shining star in upholding the principle of the independence of the judiciary. The reasons for this underperformance are similar to those found in many developing countries and include poverty, backwardness and lack of trained and qualified judges to impart justice to large sections of the population. Those who lose out on justice are mostly women and other vulnerable social groups.

Despite recent efforts to improve the image of the judiciary in Pakistan, thousands of cases are pending in courts. However, the biggest and foremost reason for the judiciary’s poor performance is the constant interference by the executive in the affairs of the judiciary.

This interference started early in the life of the country when the then president and martial law administrator required the judiciary to take a fresh oath of office swearing allegiance to the emergency provisions leading to the military takeover of the country in 1958. This was important because while the military coup eliminated two branches of government — the legislature and executive — it did not otherwise affect the judiciary. The only way the judiciary could be neutralised by a military regime was to make the senior judges subservient to the executive and prevent them from challenging the legitimacy of the coup and other extra-constitutional measures required to run the affairs of the state under military rule.

After initial resistance to the political events in 1958, the judiciary succumbed to the pressure and accepted the argument that if it did not compromise with the situation, military courts would replace civilian courts in all spheres of the judiciary. In order to continue their jurisdiction over criminal and civilian matters without questioning the politics of the day, the judiciary decided to go along with the requirement of taking an oath of allegiance to the military dictator.

The judiciary’s validation of the coup which was applied in the State v Dosso case in 1958 was so potent that three African countries in the Commonwealth borrowed it subsequently to validate the abrogation of their constitutions by the military. Later, the Dosso reasoning was replaced by the ‘doctrine of state necessity’.

This entente cordiale between the military regimes and the judiciary proved mutually rewarding. The judiciary could continue functioning without interruption as long as it did not question the actions of the military regime. The military rulers, on the other hand, could claim that not all was taken over by them and that the courts were free to dispense justice to society without fear or favour.

Following the military overthrow of a democratically elected government in 1999 in Pakistan, the senior judiciary was again asked to take an oath of allegiance to the military chief executive. Those who dissented, like Justice Saeeduzzaman Siddiqui, had to step aside. Subsequently, the Constitution (17th amendment) act 2003, declared that all laws, rules and orders issued under the military government were deemed to have been made in accordance with the Constitution.

The country has paid a high price in terms of its image abroad as the oath of allegiance of the senior judiciary remains a big obstacle in convincing the world that Pakistan’s judiciary is truly independent of the executive. The present episode is perhaps the first time in the history of Pakistan when the judiciary seems to be exerting its independence vis-à-vis an executive which is beginning to acquire more and more powers despite the lip service paid to the theory of checks and balances.

Under the Commonwealth Latimer House principles, Pakistan is morally and politically bound to ensure and respect the separation of powers and independence of action between the three branches of government – the executive, the legislature and the judiciary.

The announcement made on behalf of the Supreme Judicial Council that the electronic and press media should be careful in discussing a matter which is ‘sub-judice’ makes matters worse for the government. In this age of the internet, the government cannot prevent foreign newspapers and TV channels from commenting on the drama which is being played out in the streets of Islamabad.

In normal circumstances, the Chief Justice, upon hearing about the charges against him from the president, should have himself announced that in view of the allegations against him, he was proceeding on leave pending the outcome of an inquiry by the Supreme Judicial Council. But the rapid action that followed Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry’s meeting with the president last Friday and his subsequent protective custody and ‘isolation’ by the security agencies led to suspicions that the government was fed up with his bold and fearless demeanour in taking suo motu notices. The chief justice had spoken about many social issues which are highly objectionable and serious in magnitude but which were never brought for legislation in parliament or if these were already covered by laws, were not fully enforced by the government.

Two recent examples of the chief justice’s suo motu notices are his ban on kite flying and expression of concern on the temporary ‘disappearance’ of people. Both actions did not go down well with the government. The Punjab government lifted the kite flying ban for two days and as a result of the death of 13 persons in unfortunate incidents is now faced with possible court cases from the affected families. The ‘disappearance’ of persons has more serious overtones because it infringes on the human rights of people.

From the point of view of the government, surprise custody of suspected individuals for questioning may be necessary to round up terrorists. It is true that Pakistan has a very important role to play in combating terrorism and that it has to show a constantly rising graph in its performance on the war on terror to keep Washington satisfied. But it is also the responsibility of the government to ensure that there is a proper balance between domestic law enforcement and human rights. All other countries of the world which have joined the war against terror have observed this balance.

Normally it is not the function of the apex court to keep issuing suo motu notices to bring about societal change. But if the Chief Justice tried to translate into action the president’s vision for a fair and just society, why should he be punished for bringing about a positive change?

It is argued that the procedure set out in clauses four, five and six of Article 209 has not been followed chronologically. Clause 5 (b) of Article 209 gives the president the authority to direct the council to inquire into the matter of misconduct but it does not give the president the power to remove or make ‘non-functional’ the concerned judge of the Supreme Court or a high court until the condition in clause 6 of Article 209 has been fully met.

The government order preventing Justice Chaudhry from performing his duties on charges of misconduct raises two fundamental questions on the application of the rule of law. The first is denial of his constitutional right to continue as Chief Justice until he is proven guilty of the charges laid against him; and the second is correctness of the composition of the body holding the inquiry against the Chief Justice in accordance with the Constitution. The present composition of the Supreme Judicial Council is without the senior-most judge of the Supreme Court after the Chief Justice.

The next senior-most judge is Justice Rana Bhagwandas. His membership of the Supreme Judicial Council is mandatory in accordance with clause 3 (a) of Article 209. Even if the president had asked the judiciary to invoke Article 209 against Justice Chaudhry, the other members of the council should have consulted Justice Bhagwandas on telephone about the date of its meeting and confirmed his participation. Sadly, this does not seem to have happened because the council met on March 13 without Justice Bhagwandas.

Although the events surrounding this interesting judicial case are not a surprise to people who have followed closely the circular email of a Supreme Court advocate, Naeem Bokhari, the action that the executive took last week was too harsh and too hasty. Stopping the Chief Justice from performing his duties with immediate effect on the basis of a letter, even if the letter contained hard facts, is not good practice.

If letters alone can form the basis of determining the fate of highly-placed people in public office, it may be recalled that last year a dozen intellectuals, former politicians and retired generals wrote an open letter to the president warning him of the dangers of continuing both as president and army chief, in the interest of the nation and for the stability, unity and consolidation of democracy in the country. The president ignored that letter, perhaps rightly so because in the affairs of the state, such letters do not mean anything.

If on the basis of the inquiry of the Supreme Judicial Council it is determined by a majority vote that Justice Chaudhry is not guilty of misconduct, can anyone imagine the embarrassment it will bring to the government? Will the president be then prepared to resign admitting an error of judgement in referring Justice Chaudhry’s case to the Supreme Judicial Council?

Moreover, if this government has taken the high moral ground that previous governments were so autocratic that they did not even spare the institution of the judiciary by forcing Sajjad Ali Shah to resign or by masterminding a physical attack on the Supreme Court, how can it defend this action which to outsiders appears similar to earlier assaults on the judiciary? The removal of the Chief Justice will clearly be seen abroad as an indication that in an election year the government wants to ensure that he is not a threat to their plans to re-elect the president in uniform and win the elections for the ruling party.

Whatever the Supreme Judicial Council decides on the reference is its constitutional duty and right. But people will be curious about the details of how the inquiry is conducted. They might also support Justice Chaudhry’s request for a public inquiry.

What is at stake is not the judicial process or the issue of transparency because there are instances where inquiries have been held in camera. What is important is that the Council also looks at the record of Justice Chaudhry’s professional performance. How much harm or good have his judicial verdicts and suo motu notices brought to the country? How far has he been instrumental in restoring the independence of the judiciary? Has he inspired his juniors in the profession to be bold and fearless in dispensing justice for the public good?

After all, none of us can claim to be a saint. If Justice Chaudhry has any vanity or personal flaws, did these come in the way of him being a responsible, bold and fair Chief Justice? Judging from the public enthusiasm and media commentaries that this case has generated, it is indeed a golden opportunity for the judiciary to set the direction of its future which the infamous Dosso case turned away from nearly half a century ago.

This article was published by the author in the daily Dawn of Pakistan on 15 March 2007.