Profile: From Pindi to Gambia and back

26 May 2015

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RETIRED Justice Ali Nawaz Chohan.—Tanveer Shahzad / White Star
RETIRED Justice Ali Nawaz Chohan.—Tanveer Shahzad / White Star

RETIRED Justice Ali Nawaz Chohan has recently been appointed the chairman of the National Commission on Human Rights (NCHR), after relinquishing charge of the post of chief justice of the Republic of Gambia earlier this month.

Justice Chohan stepped down from this highest judicial slot after he developed differences with Gambian President Yahya Jammeh for acquitting former Gambian naval chief Sarjo Fofana in a treason case. Mr Fofana was a co-accused in planning a coup against the Jammeh regime over a decade ago, and had been under arrest since 2006. In the same case, Mr Chohan — hearing an appeal against the conviction of former Gambian army chief Lang Tombong Tamba — upheld the latter’s conviction, which had been announced by the high court in 2013.

“Since the Gambian government was not happy with the decision, I therefore decided to step down because I could not work in such an environment,” Mr Chohan told Dawn.

Prior to his elevation as the chief justice of Gambia in March 2014, Mr Chohan had been elected an international judge of the United Nations by the General Assembly, and worked as such for the UN at The Hague between 2006 and 2009 with the diplomatic status of under-secretary general of the UN.

He remained a judge of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), a body of the UN established to prosecute serious crimes committed during the wars in the former Yugoslavia, and to try their perpetrators. The tribunal is an ad hoc court located in The Hague, the Netherlands.

In Pakistan, Mr Chohan worked as consultant to former president Asif Ali Zardari on administrative law and international law. He has also been a visiting professor of law and a Thomas Jefferson Fellow.

Mr Chohan was born in Rawalpindi. His father Mola Dad Chohan was the first Muslim mayor of the city, taking up charge in pre-Partition times and keeping his position till October 1958, when Field Martial Ayub Khan imposed martial law. Mola Dad Chohan was the first resident of Rawalpindi to purchase a car in the 1920s. He was allotted the vehicle registration number Rawalpindi-I. The car and the number is still property of the Chohan family.

Mr Chohan’s grandfather Chaudhry Waris Khan Chohan was also the vice president of the Rawalpindi Municipality during the British era. A famous marketplace, Waris Khan, is named after him. It is in the centre of Rawalpindi city. A police station is also named PS Waris Khan.

Mr Chohan did his BA and LLB from the University of the Punjab, with a diploma in Sharia and law from the International Islamic University in Saudi Arabia. Subsequently, he went for training in international and administrative law to Columbia University in the US.

He worked as a district and sessions judge in various districts across the country, including Islamabad. He also held the positions of secretary, law and parliamentary affairs (Punjab), and chairman, Punjab Services Tribunal, Lahore. He also served as a judge in the Lahore High Court from 1998 to 2006, till he was elevated as a judge in the ICTY.

Safeguarding human rights

The name of Mr Chohan was proposed for the position of NCHR chairman in February. A parliamentary committee on the NCHR gave the approval for the body’s head, along with one member from each province and the minorities. Other individuals in the race to become the chairman of the NCHR were retired Justice Mehta Kailash Nath Kohli and Rehana Bibi Khilji.

The law seeking to create the state-funded but independent NCHR was passed by parliament on May 4, 2012, after almost three years of deliberation at the committees’ level. The bill was tabled in the National Assembly by the then minister for human rights, Mumtaz Alam Gilani, in December 2008.

The NCHR’s functions include inquiring into violations of human rights (or abetment) on its own initiative or on a complaint; intervening in court proceedings on allegations of violation by seeking to become a party in the case; visiting jails or other places of detention; reviewing factors — including acts of terrorism — that inhibit the enjoyment of human rights; spreading human rights literacy; and submitting independent reports to the government on the state of human rights in Pakistan. After the establishment of the NCHR, every citizen will have the right to register a complaint about human rights violations against an individual or institution. The commission, while inquiring into complaints, will have all the powers of a civil court and can summon any individual, or a public or private department.

Though Mr Chohan believes that he has been assigned the task of protecting human rights when the law of trying civilians in military courts has already been promulgated despite the opposition of human rights activists, he says that he is quite confident he will be able to protect human rights, and especially the rights of minorities.

According to him, the ultimate objective of the NCHR will be to create harmony amongst people belonging to different faiths and sects.

Published in Dawn, May 26th, 2015

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