Lopsided accountability

September 13, 2019

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AMIDST the political tumult unleashed by the accountability process, and its ever-widening ripple effect, Chief Justice of Pakistan Asif Saeed Khosa has voiced his unease about the way the wind is blowing on several fronts. At the opening ceremony in Islamabad on Wednesday of the new judicial year, the country’s top judge, who has a little over three months to go before his retirement, described as “dangerous” the growing perception “that the process of accountability being pursued … at present is lopsided and is a part of political engineering”. Adding that “some remedial steps need to be taken urgently so that the process does not lose credibility”, he also spoke about the shrinking political space in governance that “may not augur well for the future of the country as a constitutional democracy”. In his speech, the chief justice acknowledged the objections being raised against the suppression of the media and the curbing of dissent, and warned that such tactics only ended up exacerbating public discontent.

Coming from the top judge in a country where the judiciary has not always played a stellar role in protecting democracy, but — and this is important — has in recent years tried to shed its image as being an enabler of unelected forces, these are significant words indeed. They indicate a realisation at the highest levels of the justice system that we stand at a critical juncture where the rule of law is fast being eroded by a charade of accountability, and a political witch-hunt becoming more farcical by the day. Two former prime ministers and a former president are behind bars; several duly elected representatives of the people have also been silenced, thrown behind bars for one reason or another; there is no longer even an appearance of probity. The media, far from acting as a check on this abuse of power, is in retreat, intimidated into acquiescence rather than acting as a conduit for diverse opinions. While it is unfortunate that Justice Khosa has recognised the clear and present danger to democracy somewhat belatedly, that he has done so at last, and laid out the perils in such a comprehensive a manner, is heartening. A pushback is imperative in the interests of the country and the judiciary’s own standing in the eyes of the people.

That senior lawyers at the event on Wednesday concurred with Justice Khosa’s assessment of the situation can be seen as a positive sign. The presidential reference against Justice Faez Isa in the SJC had threatened to drive a wedge between the bar and the bench, and perhaps even spark an institutional clash of the kind which catalysed the lawyers’ movement in 2007. Announcing that the Supreme Court intends to first dispose of the multiple petitions against the reference will go some way towards allaying any lingering suspicions of partisan motives. Order must be restored and every institution return to its constitutional role.

Published in Dawn, September 13th, 2019