Journalist Cyril Almeida was placed on Pakistan's exit control list after publishing his story on a rift between the government and the military over the country's anti-terrorism strategy. Picture: Twitter@Cyalm

The Lahore High Court on Monday issued an arrest warrant for journalist Cyril Almeida after he failed to appear for trial in the treason case against himself and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The court also requested that Almeida be put on the no-fly list to prevent him from leaving the country.

A statement issued by the three-judge bench, led by Justice Syed Mazahar Ali Akbar Naqvi, said that the Dawn journalist’s absence from the hearing left the court “with no option except to issue non-bailable warrants of arrest.”

The case is being heard following civil society activist Amina Malik’s petition against Almeida and Sharif accusing the duo of treason for an interview published in Dawn on May 11 this year. In the interview, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) supreme leader said that the Mumbai attacks of 2008 originated in Pakistan.

“Militant organizations are active. Call them non-state actors, should we allow them to cross the border and kill 150 people in Mumbai? Explain it to me,” Sharif said in the interview.

Sharif’s statement was seen at the time as an attempt to garner international support against military intervention in the July elections, which were eventually shrouded in rigging allegations.

A meeting of the National Security Committee, Pakistan’s primary civil-military body, was held in the aftermath of the interview, led by then Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, who was pressured by the army leadership to distance himself from Sharif’s statements. Abbasi too has been accused of treason in Amina Malik’s petition against Sharif and Almeida.

Almeida had previously come under fire for a 2016 exposé of the civil-military divide, a report known popularly as the Dawn leaks. The report underscored a dispute between the PML-N government and the army over the status of militants in Pakistan, which led to two serving ministers being forced to resign. Observers have maintained that Sharif’s disqualification and his party’s eventual defeat in the elections this year came as a result of the publicizing of the rift with the military establishment.

While Almeida’s arrest warrants have brought the army leadership’s stranglehold over the country back into focus, it has also been seen as a maneuver to further curtail the freedom of  the press in Pakistan.

Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) issued a statement against the arrest warrants issued against Almeida for “doing his job”, maintaining that the journalist did not need to appear during the trial as a law-abiding citizen.

“The ease with which Mr Almeida’s interview with the former prime minister was perceived as an attempt to allegedly defame state institutions, and the pace at which this has spiraled into charges of treason, only serve to further choke press freedom in Pakistan,” said HRCP Chairman Dr Mehdi Hassan.

Lahore High Court Advocate and legal analyst Shoaib Saleem told Asia Times that the case against Almeida falls outside the jurisdiction of the high court.

“The high court cannot issue directions to the federal government to initiate a treason case against any individual. It has its own process which has nothing to do with the courts,” Saleem said. “The establishment has its issues with the Dawn group [and] maybe it is a move to silence freedom of expression. Earlier a controlled democratic setup was introduced with the help of some elements in the judiciary, and now media will be controlled [through this] proxy petition – just to teach a lesson.”

A case also surfaced against Najam Sethi, former Punjab Chief Minister, and editor of The Friday Times, who is known for his criticism of the military establishment. On Monday, when the High Court issued arrest warrants against Almeida, a notice regarding his own treason case was sent to Sethi.

“This case was first lodged in early 2017 after I did an Aapas Ki Baat show on Geo in which I discussed the practice of land allotments by the army to its officers,” Sethi told Asia Times. “It was subsequently discharged after being transferred to PEMRA [Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority] which fined Geo Rs 1 million (US$ 8.08 million) for crossing the red line and criticizing the army. Now they have pulled it out again.”

Both Geo and Dawn have been targeted by the military establishment for their coverage of the army, with cable operators and newspaper hawkers confirming that they’ve received calls to shut down the channel and stop the distribution of the newspaper.

Raza Rumi, editor of The Daily Times, and author of The Fractious Path: Pakistan’s Democratic Transition, believes that the cases against Almedia and Sethi add to the muzzling of media freedoms. “Sadly, the courts that should guarantee such freedoms are becoming party to undemocratic acts. As an editor I am terribly concerned about the current climate that can affect my colleagues and those in the field conducting interviews, reporting and commenting on current affairs.”

Rumi also believes that the case against Sharif is baseless. “What Nawaz Sharif said in that interview was nothing new nor a leak of any state secret. He and many others in Pakistan have said this before. Perhaps the way that statement was twisted by Indian media angered the Pakistani establishment. Nawaz is already out of favour and there was yet another reason to fix him.”

The Lahore High Court bench has adjourned the hearing of the case until October 8, with respondents directed to file their written replies. Sharif’s counsel has confirmed that the PML-N supreme leader would appear in court for the hearing, while Dawn reports maintain that Almeida would also be travelling to Lahore to appear in person.

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