A file photo of Pakistan's former prime minister Nawaz Sharif at a news conference in Islamabad. Photo: Reuters / Faisal Mahmood

It seems that we in Pakistan are living under an undeclared martial law imposed by the military establishment with the help of judiciary. The recent case of pro-establishment politician Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad is an example in this regard.

He was given a green light by the Supreme Court of Pakistan to contest elections in spite of the fact that it was proved in the court that he had concealed his assets in the nomination forms. Sheikh Rasheed has been the darling of the military establishment for long. It was expected that he, like Imran Khan, whose offshore company was also proved undeclared in the nomination form, in the court would be exonerated.

However, this time one of the judges, Qaiz Faiz Isa, wrote a dissenting note and said the Nawaz Sharif case should be reopened and should be heard by the full court. He was of the view that the way the Supreme Court is deciding cases is giving an impression that it is siding with some forces.

While the judiciary is allegedly busy targeting the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and Sharif himself, it is being criticized heavily by the masses and the legal fraternity. Despite curbs put on media and politicians and journalists to silence comment on the biased decisions of the courts, the criticism has not stopped.

The judiciary had to understand at the start that it did not even matter whether the Panama Papers decision would benefit Sharif or Khan, it was only the Supreme Court that would be the loser in this whole scenario.

The standard practice around the globe is for the judiciary to avoid taking up political cases, as they eventually bring criticism from the followers of political parties. If it is necessary to take up such cases, then the judiciary in civilized countries acts very cautiously and avoids making remarks that could eventually degrade the accused or the petitioner.

However, what we saw in the courts in Pakistan was strange and surprising. The sitting prime minister was called a godfather by the judges during the hearing of Panama Papers case against him, the decision of the court that disqualified the PM not being relevant to the case. It was not a decision that can be called a balanced one and even the legal fraternity was surprised by it. Respected lawyers like the late Asma Jahangir and Ali Ahmad Kurd termed it a weak and biased decision.

Khan on the other hand, even with evidence of an offshore company that he never disclosed in his nomination papers, was not convicted or disqualified. This gave the impression that the judiciary was acting on the instructions of invisible forces.

It does not matter whether this is deemed right or wrong, as Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz have successfully built the narrative that the judiciary and invisible forces were working on the agenda to remove them from the political horizon and that the court’s decision was part of political engineering.

From the Agartala conspiracy case in which Sheikh Mujib, the popular leader of East Pakistan, was charged with treason to the hanging of Zulfikar Bhutto and the lifetime imprisonment and disqualification of Nawaz Sharif by the courts in Pervez Musharraf‘s regime, all those decisions are remembered as bad ones and that these politicians emerged even more powerful and popular after the controversial judicial decisions. Unfortunately, the recent decision to disqualify Sharif is also proving to be another controversial decision, and it seems history will again not treat it well.

There are around 37,000 cases pending with the Pakistani Supreme Court, and in lower courts, the numbers of unheard cases are in the hundreds of thousands. It would have been better to take up those cases instead of political cases. Now the Supreme Court has to bear the criticism as it is an election year and Sharif will not sit silently; in fact, he will strengthen his narrative by becoming more vocal about the flaws in the judicial system and on the merits of the case that resulted in his disqualification.

The Supreme Court could charge him with contempt, but this would further strengthen his narrative and the credibility of judges would be questioned as a result. It will also not be easy for the court to charge Sharif with contempt as it could trigger a massive movement of PML-N workers and like-minded people against the judiciary.

On the other hand, if Sharif is not stopped he will further strengthen his case in front of the masses, which will also ultimately result in damage to the reputation of the judiciary.

In either scenario, it is a state pillar that will lose its credibility. The Supreme Court needs to show restraint and must at least revisit the case of Sharif’s disqualification in order to stop confrontations.

Voltaire once said that to learn who rules over you, simply try to find out whom you are not allowed to criticize. As per Voltaire’s definition, it is evident that politicians are not ruling us as they are the soft targets. Anyone can criticize them, punish them, hang them or send them into exile. The real rulers are hiding behind the shield of nationalism, religion, defense, and contempt. They are the ones who are untouchable.

Musharraf, who suspended the constitution and imprisoned the judges of the Supreme Court, walked away easily, making a mockery of the whole system. Retired Justice Hameed Dogar and his accomplices, who defied the orders of the full bench of the Supreme Court and took oath under a provisional constitution order after suspending the constitution of Pakistan, were never brought to justice.

Imran Khan, who alleged that the Supreme Court was involved in the rigging of the 2013 election, never faced any contempt charges. Khadim Hussain Rizvi, who openly and repeatedly abused judges and the judiciary, was not charged under any law. It is the political leaders and politicians who have always been punished.

Bold and accurate decisions do not need justification or explanation, because deep down when you know you are right it really does not matter what the whole world thinks about it. If you feel guilty and need to give an explanation about it, then it is an indication you made the wrong decision. Brave people, institutions, and nations always accept their mistakes, learn from them and rectify them. It is hoped that all the players of the power chessboard and the institutions will soon realize that by damaging one another’s credibility they are damaging the foundation of the state itself.

Justice Qazi Faiz Isa, the judge hearing the Sheikh Rasheed case along with two other justices, while writing a dissenting note has given a reasonable suggestion to reopen the Sharif case, so there is hope that the chief justice will do so and decide the case on its merits. The chief justice should remember that the forces who used the judiciary in the past to undermine democracy have used the judges and after the completion of the task threw them away like tissue.

The Supreme Court setting a double standard in its own decisions is a very dangerous trend, and sadly this has been the tragedy with Pakistan that judiciary has always aligned with the military establishment to given legal justification to the illegal steps of imposing martial law and to lend support to victimize anti-establishment governments and political parties.

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Imad Zafar

Imad Zafar is a journalist and columnist/commentator for newspapers. He is associated with TV channels, radio, newspapers, news agencies, and political, policy and media related think-tanks.

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