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ISLAMABAD: After the failure of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) chairman Imran Khan to submit a reply to the Election Commission of Pakistan in a contempt case despite repeated directions, Chief Election Commis­sioner (CEC) retired Justice Sardar Muhammad Raza on Tuesday declared that the ECP would announce a verdict on July 10 without a response.

Instead of submitting the reply, PTI’s counsel Shahid Gondal informed the ECP bench headed by the CEC that Mr Khan had changed his lawyer in the case and the newly-appointed lawyer Babar Awan would appear before the commission at the next hearing.

Last month, while giving another opportunity to Mr Khan to submit his long-delayed response in the contempt case filed against him by a party dissident and former founding member of the PTI, Akbar Babar, the ECP had adjourned the hearing till July 4.

“A new response has been prepared which will be submitted by Babar Awan in the next hearing,” Mr Gondal told the ECP bench. He also said that the PTI chief could not attend the proceedings as he had been on a visit to Chitral.

“Sometimes he [Imran Khan] is in Chitral and sometimes he is in Nathiagali,” the CEC remarked.

Recalling that the PTI had already changed a number of lawyers during the course of proceedings, the CEC said they had nothing to do with the new lawyer and the PTI chief was supposed to submit his response to the contempt notice. He further said the ECP now did not need Mr Khan’s response and they would announce their verdict on Wednesday.

The CEC first said that they would announce the verdict on Wednesday, but upon repeated pleas by the PTI’s counsel, he set July 10 as the next date of hearing.

Interestingly, the new hearing date is coinciding with the deadline for the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) probing money laundering charges against the Sharif family for submitting its report to the Supreme Court.

The ECP had issued the contempt notice to Mr Khan on Jan 24 over his “scandalous remarks” about the commission. The petitioner, who had also filed the foreign funding case against the PTI leadership, had informed the Commission that Mr Khan had accused the ECP of being biased in the foreign funding case following which his counsel had tendered an apology with the commission. He said the PTI chairman in a TV interview said that his counsel had tendered an apology in his personal capacity and that he had not apologised.

In May, PTI’s lawyer Fawad Chaudhry submitted Mr Khan’s response, but it was rejected by the ECP, saying the response did not contain replies to some of the contentious questions asked by the Commission. Moreover, the ECP stated that the PTI chief had not apologised over his remarks in the response. The ECP then allowed the PTI lawyer to either submit a fresh response or an amended draft before it within a week. Since then, the ECP has been awaiting the response.

During the hearing of the same case on April 4, the ECP bench had asked Mr Khan to submit a response to the contempt notice or be ready to face legal proceedings.

“If you don’t want to give a reply, tell us. We will write down that you have nothing to say. If we do not receive a response by the next hearing, we will proceed in accordance with law,” the CEC had remarked during the hearing while adjourning the case till April 24.

Talking to reporters outside the ECP, petitioner Akbar Babar said the repeated delays sought by Mr Khan were tantamount to making a mockery of justice. He said it was time that the constitutional bodies exercised their powers and authority by passing judgements and enforcing orders.

“If the prime minister can be held accountable for alleged misuse of taxpayers’ money why can’t Imran Khan be held accountable for alleged corruption and misappropriation of public donations worth billions?” he asked.

Mr Babar criticised the PTI chief for changing his lawyers, saying that Mr Khan would be held accountable sooner rather than later.

On the other hand, PTI’s counsel Gondal while talking to media alleged that efforts were being made to blackmail Mr Khan as he was pursuing the Panama Papers case against the Sharif family.

When contacted, PTI’s Fawad Chaudhry said that he could not appear before the ECP on Tuesday due to his engagements in Lahore. He said that he had already prepared the new response which he would submit before the ECP soon.

When told that the ECP had decided to announce its verdict without a response on June 10, the PTI leader said that it did not matter as the party believed that the ECP had no powers at all to hold trial in contempt cases. He said the PTI had the option to challenge the ECP hearings before the high court, but it wanted to settle the issue at the ECP forum. He hinted that the party might challenge the ECP’s verdict in the Islamabad High Court in case the Commission decided to initiate contempt proceedings against Mr Khan.

Published in Dawn, July 5th, 2017