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Verdict muzzled

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FOR some people, crime is a rational economic choice; they tactically mix crime with politics for protection and furtherance of their monetary interests; such a peculiar mix has an element of reciprocity in it, ie politicians need money for electoral victory and criminals require political patronage to nurture their illicit consortiums. Recently, one such mix was unearthed in Pakistan, when the Supreme Court, through three different but connected verdicts, declared the transfers of state-owned land to Bahria Town, for three different housing schemes, as illegal and void.

Justice Ejaz Afzal, author of the hard-hitting majority opinion, appositely quoted Saghir Siddiqui’s classic “Be wajah tou nahin hain chaman ki tabhaiaan, Kuch baghban hain barq o sharar say milay huwai” whilst criticising the state machinery’s corrupt and collusive role in facilitating exchange of expensive state land with low-priced land of Bahria Town. The apex court rightly observed that the bureaucracy and the ruling political elite, which are expected to act as trustees of the state land, barefacedly betrayed citizens’ trust by aiding Bahria Town’s unjust enrichment at the cost of public property.

In the first verdict, the apex court dec­lared illegal the exchange of land between Malir Development Authority (MDA) and Bahria Town because the law does not allow exchange of state land with private land. Moreover, the court ruled that even if the law mandated such an exchange, there is nothing on the record to justify the philanthropic swap of compact and costly chunks of MDA land with scattered and inexpensive strips of Bahria Town, much of it located near Balochistan in the far reaches of Malir district.

In the second verdict, the apex court held the exchange of forest land in Takht Pari village (Rawalpindi) with Bahria Town of no legal effect because the transaction, in addition to violating statutory laws, was based on the erroneous demarcation of Takht Pari as comprising 1,741 acres, but which, as per the authentic records, is actually 2,210 acres. The court noted that this was deliberately done by state functionaries to give legal cover to the massive encroachment by Bahria Town on forest land.

It seems Bahria Town is still immune from media criticism.

The third verdict relates to the New Murree Development Scheme wherein the court held all the construction work of Bahria Town taking place in shamlat-e-deh (communal land) as patently illegal since it violates the area’s wajid-ul-arz (record of customs) and also the mandate of the Forest Act 1927.

In Pakistan, judicial verdicts, especially those involving mega corruption scandals, draw heightened media attention. Last year, a powerful judgement by the apex court led to the disqualification of the then prime minister, Mian Nawaz Sharif; the judges’ opinion in general, and Justice Khosa’s in particular, made national and international headlines. Their words were repeatedly and ecstatically discussed by the local media to shame the ousted premier and his family.

As a matter of fact, the magnitude of the Bahria verdicts is far greater than that of the Panama judgement. The latter involves Rs8 billion worth of flats, while the Bahria verdict in the MDA case alone, as per Justice Faisal Arab, involves a whopping Rs225bn. Unfortunately, while exposing the political elites’ corruption, our vibrant media has completely ignored the verdicts which exposed the most egregious violations of the law by a business tycoon in collusion with state machinery. The same media that wildly celebrated Justice Khosa’s use of Balzac’s quote “Behind every great fortune there is a crime” in the Panama judgement, didn’t notice Justice Ejaz’s use of the popular maxim ‘Robbing Peter to pay Paul” in the Bahria verdicts.

The verdicts are facing a media blackout; they are being ignored and the object appears to be to throw them into the dustbin of legal history. Most media outlets didn’t even report the announcement of the verdicts; instead we saw advertisements on various channels glorifying Bahria Town’s charitable and religious contributions. Even the NAB investigations taking place consequent to the verdicts have only been reported by one or two media houses. Recently, a leading journalist tweeted that a recorded programme — in which he participated — on the scandal wasn’t allowed to be aired.

It appears that despite hard-hitting judgements and conclusive evidence, the project is still immune from media criticism and scrutiny. The media’s absolute and voluntary detachment from the verdicts appears to expose its selective outrage, its subservience to powerful economic syndicates and its preference for discriminatory accountability. Jawed Naqvi in a recent column for Dawn titled ‘From Caxton to Hinduvta’ brilliantly discussed the Indian Cobrapost sting operation which exposed the dirty nexus between Indian media companies and India’s powerful capitalist class. The way our most of our media has muzzled the verdicts, it appears that the Indian disease has also made inroads here.

The writer is a lawyer.

Published in Dawn, June 24th, 2018

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