For the first time in the history of Pakistan, an incumbent Prime Minister has been found guilty of contempt of the highest court of the country. PM Yousuf Raza Gilani is now a “convicted” Chief Executive.
NRO - a black law, thrust on Pakistan by a military dictator was struck down by the highest court of the country in 2009. It has yet to be implemented - thanks to the intransigence of the powers that be.
A specific directive of the Supreme Court contained in the court order addressed to the Prime Minister has been cavalierly ignored - nay defied, for months. The Prime Minister has in Parliament and outside gleefully refused to obey and implement it. A sharp and smart lawyer has managed to drag the contempt case for three months or so. The court verdict has finally come. To quote: “For the reasons to be recorded later, the accused Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani, Prime Minister of Pakistan/Chief Executive of the federation is found guilty of and convicted for contempt of court - after our satisfaction - that the contempt committed by him is substantially detrimental and tends to bring this court and the judiciary of this country into ridicule --- we note that the findings and the conviction for the contempt of the court are likely to entail some serious consequences in terms of Article 63(1)(g) disqualification of the Constitution. He is, therefore, punished under Section 5 (punishment) of the Contempt of Court Ordinance (Ordinance V of 2003) with imprisonment till the rising of the court today.”
Soon after the adjournment of the court, the bench released the statement: “The respondent appeared in person with his learned counsel. The short order passed in the matter of contempt of court was read out in open court. After that the respondent/convict remained in the custody of the court till his release upon rising of the court for the day.”
The convicted Prime Minister has called the court verdict as “inappropriate” (such a remark could well be construed as another act of contempt of the court). Mr Aitzaz Ahsan, Prime Minister’s legal counsel, in a lengthy press conference has questioned the validity of the judgment on various counts. He also said that an appeal would be filed against the decision.
While the PPP government and politicians remain in a defiant mode, PML-N and Tehreek-i-Insaf leaders have advised Mr Gilani to step down. Talking to a TV channel, Nawaz Sharif said: “The Prime Minister should immediately step down without prolonging the crisis, dissolve the National and Provincial Assemblies and hold fresh elections.” He also suggested appointment of a neutral and “unanimous” Prime Minister, who should, in compliance with the Supreme Court order, write a letter to the Swiss court and steer the country towards general elections.
PTI Chairman Imran Khan has demanded immediate resignation of the Prime Minister, saying that Mr Gilani had lost moral authority to hold his office. At a press conference in Islamabad, Imran was critical of the PPP demonstrations against the court verdict staged by its workers in Islamabad and other places. He called PPP and its allies “forces of status quo”, seeking to “protect their corruption” and declared that “if an effort was made to pressurise the judiciary, we will launch a movement unprecedented in the history of the country.” He warned of a “tsunami” march on Islamabad.
In the National Assembly on Thursday, the newly-appointed Minister for Law and Justice, Mr Farooq H. Naek, reacted sharply to leader of the opposition, Chaudhry Nisar Ali’s remarks that it would be odd for Mr Gilani - a convicted Prime Minister - to remain MNA and PM. Said Mr Naek: “Today, Mr Gilani is the Prime Minister of Pakistan and Insha Allah he will remain the Prime Minister of Pakistan.”
Opinion is divided amongst the leading lawyers of Pakistan. Hamid Khan, former President of the Supreme Court Bar Association and presently a PTI leader, is of the view that because of the court ruling, Mr Gilani stands convicted and simultaneously debarred from holding the office of Prime Minister and membership of the National Assembly; whereas Aitzaz Ahsan, who has expressed serious reservations about the court’s judgment, considers that a due process will have to be followed entailing a reference to the Speaker of the National Assembly and the Election Commission. Minister Naek made a point of it in his speech at the National Assembly, when he said while addressing the Speaker: “You are not a post-office, you have to apply your mind, you are the final arbiter.”
If indeed this process is followed, the matter can hang fire for four months or so (the Speaker can take a month for forwarding the reference, while the Chief Election Commissioner can take three months to finally take and announce a decision). There is also the hurdle of the appeal against the court order.
The legal side of the case apart, the PPP has already politicised the matter. Meetings have been held in the presidency and more street action is possibly on the cards. An urgent meeting of the Cabinet chaired by Mr Gilani has been held to signal a message that nothing has changed and as if the court proceedings were merely a gust of wind that has come and gone.
A section of the media has been critical of the restraint exercised by the court - the editor of a leading newspaper going to the length of saying that “the restraining prudence shown by the bench is nothing, but another form of the doctrine of necessity.”
That the PPP will persist in refusing to honour the court verdict is a foregone conclusion. It will resort to all kinds of devices, including the use of the Sindh card if considered necessary. Little, however, does it realise that a denial of the imperative of abiding by the Supreme Court judgment will add to confusion and resultant instability in the country at a time when it is facing formidable internal and external challenges. The US special representative, Marc Grossman, is already in Islamabad holding talks with high level civil and military office holders. A crisis-ridden government will find itself considerably handicapped to put up a robust stand, while negotiating the new terms of engagement in accordance with the guidelines and directives contained in the parliamentary resolution. The circumstances, thus, warrant restraint on the part of the central ruling elite and avoid adding to further turbulence. If, however, they stick to their aggressive, confrontationist stance, the opposition too will step up their agitational activities. The economy is already in serious trouble. And so is governance and the state of law and order. One may only hope that better sense will prevail and the sagacious senior members of the ruling party will counsel the top leadership to realise the vital importance of upholding the rule of law, even if it hurts their personal interests.
The writer is an ex-federal secretary and ambassador, and political and international relations analyst.