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In a landmark judgment, the Supreme Court of Pakistan (SC) has directed the government and its law-enforcement and intelligence agencies to operate within the mandate given to them by the constitution.

On November 22, 2018, a two-judge SC bench – Justice Qazi Faez Isa and Justice Musheer Alam – had reserved its judgment and closed the hearing for a case that was initiated suo motu on November 21, 2017. This Wednesday, the bench delivered its verdict on the 2017 Faizabad sit-in of Tehreek-Labaik-Pakistan (TLP) and ordered the administration to take action against those involved in the destruction of public and private property during protest.

The Faizabad sit-in was staged by the fundamentalist religious outfit TLP after an amendment in the election bill of 2017 that changed the affirmation of the finality of the prophethood of Hazrat Muhammad (peace be upon him) for Muslim parliamentarians taking the oath from “I solemnly swear” to “I believe.” In its verdict, the bench not only ordered action against the TLP leadership for inciting hatred and violence but also said that “A person issuing an edict or fatwa which harms another or puts another in harm’s way must be criminally prosecuted under the Pakistan Penal Code, the Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997 and/or the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016.”

However, the most important part of the verdict concerns the role of intelligence agencies and army officers who indulge in politics. The SC referred to Asghar Khan‘s case and said in the judgment that the involvement of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and members of the armed forces in politics, media and other “unlawful activities” must end. The verdict also criticized the involvement of the armed forces’ public relations department and said its director general should refrain from commenting on political issues via social media. The verdict referred to a tweet from the PR department stating that the 2018 general elections were fair.

SC also stated that the armed forces must not be perceived to be supporting any particular party, faction or individual. If  armed forces personnel indulge in any form of politicking or try to manipulate the media they undermine the integrity and professionalism of the military, said the bench.

The role of ISI in the Faizabad sit-in was also criticized, and the SC stated in its judgment that the report submitted by the spy agency did not disclose the  TLP leadership’s “source of livelihood, place of work, address, funding of their organizations, et cetera.”

This Supreme Court of Pakistan’s verdict is a ray of hope in the darkness of authoritarianism and undeclared dictatorship

This recent verdict can be described as a landmark judgment because quite often the superior judiciary of Pakistan remains silent on the role of the military establishment in political maneuvering and imposing undeclared censorship on the media. The SC also criticized those media organizations that gave around-the-clock coverage to the TLP sit-ins and in doing so helped promote its agenda.

The Supreme Court has virtually indicted spy agencies, the military establishment, law-enforcement agencies, and the media houses aligned with the establishment, but the electronic media has completely ignored the decision in its coverage. Even the print media halfheartedly gave coverage to this decision. It was social media and online publications that highlighted the crux of the landmark judgment. Such is the state of fear and censorship that every Pakistani publication refused to publish this corespondent’s article on the SC decision, some stating that it is a very sensitive matter and others citing undue pressure from certain quarters.

At the time this verdict was handed down by the court, a female activist of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), Gulalai Ismail, was abducted and held by the spy agencies for participating in a PTM demonstration against the killing of Arman Loni (a PTM activist) by law-enforcement agencies. In this state where electronic and print media are under immense pressure and society is gripped with the fear of being abducted or killed by law-enforcement agencies for dissenting from the establishment narrative, this Supreme Court of Pakistan’s verdict is a ray of hope in the darkness of authoritarianism and undeclared dictatorship.

The SC has performed its duty against all  odds, fearlessly giving its verdict, but who will dare implement the decision? The civil administration has no control over the military establishment and its agencies, nor does the current regime, which came into power as the result of pre-poll rigging, have the will to act and implement the verdict. Perhaps the Supreme Court needs to give a time frame to the administration for booking those who played a role in staging the TLP sit-in.

Human-rights violations in Pakistan are very common and the fundamental rights of citizens have been taken away in the name of patriotism and fighting the fifth generation war. But now the SC has clearly stated that state institutions, including those that are part of the security apparatus, cannot curtail freedom of speech and expression and do not have the authority to interfere with broadcasts and publications, or the management of broadcasters/publishers and  the distribution of newspapers.

But the way even the Supreme Court’s decision is not being given proper coverage  – it was not even discussed on TV talk shows – highlights the bitter realities on the ground in Pakistan. Perhaps the honorable Justices Qazi Faiz Esa and Musheer Alam have laid the foundation for a society that instead of being run on fear, will flourish thanks to a new respect for the freedom to express ideas,  dissent and live without  fear of being abducted by the deep state. The verdict has also paved the way for pluralism in society by directing the authorities to convict those who issue hateful fatwas, engage in extremism and exploit religious sentiments.

However, it will take some time and gradual evolution before the SC’s historic verdict changes the course of the social and political discourse in Pakistan. The chains of fear that kept society enslaved by rotten narratives will gradually be broken. If we look at the current proceedings, we can see signs that the people of Pakistan are slowly breaking their shackles and raising their voices to demand their fundamental human and political rights.

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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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