ISLAMABAD/Lahore, Nov 4: Attorney-General Malik Mohammad Qayyum has hinted that the number of Supreme Court judges may be reduced to 13, 12 or even 10 from the existing 19.

In an interview to DawnNews on Sunday, the chief government lawyer brushed aside an impression there was going to be a complete military takeover or that military courts would be set up after the imposition of emergency, saying that ‘civilian rule’ would continue to prevail.

He hoped that the emergency would not last long and would be lifted in a month or two. But, he added, it all depended on the improvement in the situation, including law and order.

He said that President Gen Pervez Musharraf was interested in revoking the emergency. He, however, feared imposition of martial law if the crisis persisted.

Unfolding the government’s future strategy, he said that more judges would be asked to take oath under the Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO) by Monday. Otherwise, he said, the government would fill the vacant seats in a few days.

It remains unclear how many more judges will be taking oath on Monday, the first day of Justice Abdul Hameed Dogar as the Chief Justice of Pakistan. Also, it is yet to be seen what would be the reaction of the lawyers’ community, which has vowed to hold protest demonstrations throughout the country on the day and stop judges who took a fresh oath from functioning. Meanwhile, the new chief justice has cancelled the old cause list and issued a new one for a four-member bench, comprising himself, Justice Mohammad Nawaz Abbasi, Justice Faqir Mohammad Khokhar and Justice M. Javed Buttar.

High-profile cases are missing from the list, including the acceptance of Gen Musharraf as presidential candidate by the Election Commission and the contempt of court case relating to forced deportation of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif to Jeddah.

About the strength of judges in the apex court, the attorney-general said the number was too big, adding that the workload on them was not justified while the appointment of two adhoc judges in the Supreme Court was uncalled for and more of a case of accommodation.

About the emergency and the PCO, he said: “It is not martial law by any standard or a military rule, though you can call it emergency-plus.” He admitted that the measures were extra-constitutional but at a lesser scale than what happened in Oct 1999, when the government of Nawaz Sharif was removed by Gen Musharraf.

About the public perception or a reaction from the lawyer’s community, Mr Qayyum said generally a reaction was always expected during such developments but if they dispassionately ponder, they would appreciate the gravity of the situation, which, he claimed, was grimmer than the Oct 12, 1999, military takeover.

Justifying Gen Musharraf’s step, he said the president had acted with great restraint. Though this is not something of which we should be proud of, but it was inevitable as the president had been left with no option but to act. A few months back, Gen Musharraf was suggested to take such an extreme step but he had not agreed, he said.On petitions challenging the acceptance of nomination of Gen Musharraf by the Election Commission, Malik Qayyum deplored that members of the 11-judge bench hearing the petitions were virtually ridiculing the president and the army. Besides the counsel for petitioners had also crossed the limit of decency in their arguments, he alleged.

Ninety nine per cent of the Constitution is still intact except for a few fundamental rights, which also would not be a permanent feature. However, he assured the people that no excesses or violation of any fundamental rights would be committed by the government.

When asked who had authored the PCO, he said neither he was asked to draft the decree nor Sharifuddin Pirzada. But he neither denied nor confirmed that his predecessor Makhdoom Ali Khan was the one who had drafted the PCO.

The attorney-general denied that the judges had been taken into custody or there was a restraint on their movements and claimed that police deployment at the judicial colony was to discourage miscreants from disturbing peace in the area.

About the new chief justice, he said Justice Abdul Hameed Dogar was an independent judge and expressed the hope that the president’s nomination case would now be decided on merit.

Despite emergency, he said, general elections would likely be held on time.

He said the National Assembly would be dissolved on Nov 15 and the provincial assemblies a few days later, on completion of their five-year term, and then the elections would be held within the period prescribed by the Constitution.

He did not say whether the emergency would be lifted by that time or the electoral process would be completed under it.

What the attorney-general said about the elections differed slightly from a statement of Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz who said at a news conference that no decision had been taken yet about the polls.

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