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2019 in review: Who made news in Pakistan?

More often than not, it was the people at the centre of the stories who garnered interest.
Updated Dec 31, 2019 09:53pm

If one was to go by Dawn.com's readership, there was no bigger story in 2019 than the aerial dogfight between India and Pakistan in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack. But on the national front, there were other stories that gripped the nation, divided the nation and some which caught the nation off guard.

But more often that not, it was the people at the centre of these stories who garnered such strong reactions.

Here, we shortlist some of those newsmakers to give our readers a recap of the year that was 2019 in Pakistan.

Bajwa: The extension that nearly wasn’t

The cliffhanger hearings made one thing clear: there is a lack of clarity when it comes to laws governing the reappointment/extension of an army chief. — Reuters
The cliffhanger hearings made one thing clear: there is a lack of clarity when it comes to laws governing the reappointment/extension of an army chief. — Reuters

Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, whose tenure as Chief of Army Staff (COAS) was supposed to end in November, was set to stay on as the army chief for the next three years after Prime Minister Imran Khan approved his extension in August. The news of his extension made headlines, reactions poured in, and video clips of a pre-election Imran presenting his then opposing views to extending tenures of army chiefs were replayed. The chatter, however, stopped within a month.

But, in November, only days before Bajwa's retirement date, came a petition that no one had paid any attention to — and it only caught the media's eye when the petitioner asked to withdraw it. The Supreme Court, turning down the request to withdraw the petition, decided to hear it as a matter of "public interest" and the same day, suspended Bajwa's notification for the course of the hearings.

After three days of faulty notifications with the wrong dates issued under incorrect articles of the law and a string of government meetings (one attended by Bajwa himself), the court decided to let Bajwa stay on for another six months, but only on the condition that the parliament would legislate on the matter in that time period.

The cliffhanger hearings made one thing clear: there is a lack of clarity when it comes to laws governing the reappointment/extension of an army chief. And for that, this judgement will hold weight for years to come, regardless of the outcome of the government's review petition and whether the parliament is able to pass legislation on the matter or not.

Musharraf: A case of explosive outcomes

In a video released following the verdict, Pervez Musharraf expressed his gratitude to the armed forces and the people of Pakistan for "remembering his services for the nation".
In a video released following the verdict, Pervez Musharraf expressed his gratitude to the armed forces and the people of Pakistan for "remembering his services for the nation".

The high treason trial of the former military dictator for imposing the state of emergency on Nov 3, 2007, had been pending since December 2013. With six years having gone by, the bench reconstituted multiple times, and Musharraf's statement still not recorded before the court, there were many who assumed that there would never be an actual outcome.

In November, however, a special court bench comprising three high court judges reserved the verdict in the long-drawn case.

What followed were not only petitions by Musharraf, but also the PTI-led government who asked the Islamabad High Court to halt the verdict at the eleventh hour. Subsequently, the high court intervened on the government’s petition and the verdict didn't come on that day. The special court in December, after hearing arguments from the legal teams, said yet again it would announce the verdict, this time on Dec 17. And despite the prosecution's last-minute petitions, the court delivered a damning verdict: Musharraf was found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death.

For the first time in history, a former military chief and a former president had been deemed a traitor. The army reacted swiftly. "An ex-Army Chief, Chairman Joint Chief of Staff Committee and President of Pakistan, who has served the country for over 40 years, fought wars for the defense of the country can surely never be a traitor," it said.

The verdict was hailed as well as assailed, and put into motion a sense of accountability that perhaps could not even be conceived prior to Dec 17.

While the country was still processing this groundbreaking development, the detailed verdict came out on Dec 19, but instead of the reasons of Musharraf’s conviction grabbing headlines, it was the grisly para 66 that anyone could talk about: “[...] if found dead, his corpse be dragged to the D-Chowk, Islamabad, Pakistan and be hanged for 03 days.”

Before the day was over, the verdict was excoriated in a belligerent presser by the DG ISPR while the government announced it would file a reference against Peshawar High Court Chief Justice Waqar Ahmed Seth, who authored para 66, in the Supreme Judicial Council for being “mentally unfit” and “incompetent”, besides challenging the verdict in the Supreme Court.

What’s left to be seen now is whether the judgement, the first of its kind, will hold or not.

Status update: Behind bars, out on bail, or out of the country?

We could do a big write-up on all the politicians' arrests that took place this year, the term 'political victimisation' being thrown around, National Accountability Bureau (NAB) defending itself, Prime Minister Imran saying he wants to put more corrupt people behind bars — or we could let the data do the talking.

Below are the major arrests of the year and their current status:

Nawaz's fight and flight

Nawaz Sharif pictured inside the air ambulance that transported him to London. — Photo courtesy PML-N
Nawaz Sharif pictured inside the air ambulance that transported him to London. — Photo courtesy PML-N

Perhaps no other news story divided the nation as much as in the case of convicted and incarcerated former prime minister Nawaz Sharif travelling abroad for medical treatment. Evening talk shows debated extensively whether an exception should be made for Nawaz, who has been convicted in two corruption cases.

The former prime minister was admitted to the Services Hospital in October, where he was diagnosed with an immune system disorder and was recommended by doctors to go abroad as his condition continued to deteriorate despite treatment.

Then came a lengthy tussle between PTI and PML-N, with leaders of both sides issuing statements on Nawaz’s health, and a number of medical reports testifying to the severity of the former premier’s health.

After much deliberation and meetings, the government agreed to allow Nawaz to travel abroad, with the condition that indemnity bonds amounting to Rs7-7.5 billion be furnished.

The PML-N, however, rejected the condition and took the matter to the LHC, which — in a blow to the Centre — ordered the federal government to remove his name from the ECL without any conditions. The verdict was issued after Nawaz signed a court-approved undertaking, saying that he would return to the country within four weeks.

PML-N president Shehbaz Sharif, who accompanied Nawaz, also signed the undertaking, which stated he would "ensure return" of his brother.

Nawaz was allowed to leave the country for a period of four weeks, extendable on the basis of medical reports. The court will take up the matter in January.

After a few days of mulling, the interior ministry issued a notification allowing Nawaz to travel abroad, saying the decision was an “interim agreement” in the light of the LHC order.

Former premier Nawaz Sharif leaves for London, accompanied by his brother Shehbaz Sharif. — DawnNewsTV
Former premier Nawaz Sharif leaves for London, accompanied by his brother Shehbaz Sharif. — DawnNewsTV

Nawaz finally departed for UK on November 19, offering people a glimpse of himself in a very long time and launching yet another debate, this time on his appearance.

“After seeing him going up the plane stairs, I once again went through the medical reports that suggested he has [a] heart problem, his kidneys are also not functioning properly and that he is a diabetic,” Prime Minister Imran had remarked as pictures of Nawaz boarding the Qatar Airways plane were shown on repeat on TV channels.

Altaf: The arrest that was a long time coming

Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) founder Altaf Hussain leaves after appearing before a magistrates' court in London on October 10. — Photo by Atika Rehman
Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) founder Altaf Hussain leaves after appearing before a magistrates' court in London on October 10. — Photo by Atika Rehman

There is a whole generation of young Pakistanis who grew up in a time when Altaf Hussain, the founder of Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), was physically not in the country but his influence was such up till 2016, that they were well aware of his bellowing voice and his ability to shut down Karachi within minutes of instructions issued from the United Kingdom.

But then came an incendiary speech in 2016 which marked a major shift for MQM and its leader. Here's what Altaf said...

Hours after Hussain delivered the speech in 2016, MQM workers had attacked the ARY News office in Karachi. Shortly after, the Rangers had detained a handful of senior MQM leaders overnight. In the days that followed, the Karachi wing of the party led by Farooq Sattar distanced itself from Hussain and the London wing.

The minister for interior at the time had sought assistance from British authorities, and asked them to take action against Hussain for “inciting people of Pakistan to violence”. Hussain also apologised to the then army chief Gen Raheel Sharif and the Rangers director general for his vitriolic speech.

But MQM hasn't wielded the same power since.

And so, when the news of his arrest by London's Metropolitan Police broke on June 11, it did not lead to the fallout that would have been anticipated only three years back.

"The man, who is aged in his 60s, was arrested at an address in north west London. He was arrested on suspicion of intentionally encouraging or assisting offences contrary to Section 44 of the Serious Crime Act 2007," said the police without naming Hussain.

He was released on bail a day later and on October 11, he was formally charged by the Crown Prosecution Service under Section 1(2) of the Terrorism Act 2006 for encouraging terrorism in the speech in question.

On November 1, London’s Criminal Court extended his bail, granted to him based on conditions in October. A preliminary hearing will now be held on March 20, 2020 and the trial will begin on June 1 — and needless to say, Hussain will make headlines again.

A judge, a video and damning claims

A screengrab from a video shown by PML-N leader Maryam Nawaz at a press conference shows judge Arshad Malik (R) in conversation with PML-N supporter Nasir Butt (L).
A screengrab from a video shown by PML-N leader Maryam Nawaz at a press conference shows judge Arshad Malik (R) in conversation with PML-N supporter Nasir Butt (L).

On an otherwise regular day in July, PML-N vice president Maryam Nawaz opened a Pandora’s box, during a hurriedly called presser, with a startling claim that the judge of an accountability court confessed he had been “pressurised and blackmailed” to convict her father, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, in the Al-Azizia reference.

A video purported to be about the conversation between accountability judge Arshad Malik and a PML-N ‘sympathiser’ Nasir Butt was played on a screen projector at the press conference in which the former (judge) appeared to say he handed down seven-year imprisonment to Nawaz Sharif in the Al-Azizia Mills case (in Dec 2018) under “immense pressure from hidden hands”.

The judge denied it, made counter allegations of his own, PML-N called for the Al-Azizia verdict to be declared void — the video was anything anyone could talk about for a long time.

Judge Malik, who lodged a case with the FIA against Butt and others, was suspended by the Islamabad High Court and posted as an officer on special duty (OSD) at the Lahore Sessions Court.

There was also talk of an ‘immoral video’ through which the judge was allegedly blackmailed and which the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) is also looking into.

In the most recent development, the FIA on Dec 23 under its new chief Wajid Zia — a star witness who had gathered evidence against Nawaz Sharif and his family members in the Panama Papers case — summoned PML-N's three main leaders in the video scandal and on Dec 26, the agency conducted a raid at PML-N's party secretariat in Lahore "to confiscate material" related to the explosive July press conference.

Whether Nawaz's conviction in Al-Azizia will stick or not in light of the video and all that unraveled in its aftermath is something only 2020 can answer.

Maulana leads the march to...nowhere?

JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman waves to supporters on his arrival to lead the 'Azadi March'. — AFP
JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman waves to supporters on his arrival to lead the 'Azadi March'. — AFP

In plain words, the march that commenced in October on the call of JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman did not achieve what it set out to do: Prime Minister Imran did not resign, the PTI government was not toppled. Rehman cut a lonely figure during the 13 days that his supporters camped out under the open skies in Islamabad, with Shehbaz and PPP Chairperson Bilawal Bhutto making a one-off appearance but otherwise staying far from the protest movement.

There was plan B and eventually a plan C but neither really picked up and the protest fizzled out. What it did manage to do, however, was lay bare the divide among the opposition on agreeing on a joint strategy to deal with the PTI-led government. Analysts also drew comparisons between the JUI-F sit-in in Islamabad and the one that started it all: the PTI dharna in 2014.

“So when mealy-mouthed government spokesmen point out piously that Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s Azadi March and the on-going dharna is bad for democracy, he, and the rest of us, can only raise our eyebrows and ask in unison: ‘Excuse me?’” wrote columnist Irfan Husain.

Admittedly, the PTI dharna ran much longer and left more of an impact on the then PML-N government.

As the dust settled following the Azadi marchers’ departure, the real purpose of the march remained uncertain and so did the possibility of Maulana resurfacing again for another anti-government movement.

The children of Kasur remain vulnerable

This decade has not been kind to the children of Kasur. In 2015, Kasur’s Hussain Khanwala village had attracted worldwide attention when a child pornography ring was busted. In January 2018, six-year-old Zainab Ansari was found dead in a trash heap near Shahbaz Khan Road, five days after she went missing. It emerged that hers was the 12th such incident to have occurred within a 10-kilometre radius in Kasur over a 12-month period.

The prime suspect, Imran Ali, was arrested on Jan 23, 2018, and executed in October.

This year, once again, the Punjab district came into the limelight after police found remains of three minor boys who they suspected were murdered being sexually assaulted.

As investigations unfolded, it was revealed that four children — aged between eight and 12 years — had gone missing in Chunian since in June with the latest, eight-year-old Faizan, disappearing on the night of September 16.

Suspect Sohail Shahzad being brought into the court by police with a black hood over his head. — DawnNewsTV/File
Suspect Sohail Shahzad being brought into the court by police with a black hood over his head. — DawnNewsTV/File

Sohail Shahzad was arrested by police on October 1. He was convicted by an anti-terrorism court in Lahore on December 17 and handed the death sentence on three counts.

The incident triggered strong reactions from the prime minister to the people and even though the criminal behind the most recent heinous crimes was found and convicted, it isn't enough. As written in an editorial by Dawn, "the repeated instances of gruesome cases of child sexual abuse from the same area means that there could be scores of other abused children in need of help but who remain silent".

IK makes a splash on maiden US visit as premier

US President Donald Trump praised Pakistan for its help in advancing peace talks in Afghanistan as he hosted Prime Minister Imran Khan in the Oval Office on July 22. — AFP
US President Donald Trump praised Pakistan for its help in advancing peace talks in Afghanistan as he hosted Prime Minister Imran Khan in the Oval Office on July 22. — AFP

A lot was said about Prime Minister Imran and US President Donald Trump in the same breath prior to this visit, so naturally the first meeting between the two leaders was watched with a lot of interest — not just by Pakistanis but the US media, and of course, Indian media.

But it wasn't just the meeting with Trump — which went exceptionally well given the optics — that had everyone talking, but the entire whirlwind three-day tour that included everything from Imran holding a jalsa and meeting senior congressional leaders on Capitol Hill to taking centre stage at a top Washington think tank and speaking to US media.

"He came, he saw, he conquered," wrote Michael Kugelman on Imran's "pleasant and well-received visit".

While nothing quantifiable came of the tour, it did well to boost Pakistan's leadership and shake things up on the Kashmir front, with President Trump revealing to Prime Minister Imran and the press that he had been asked by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to act as a ‘mediator or arbitrator’ on the Jammu & Kashmir issue.

Critics as well as supporters were unanimous in their praise for the premier's voyage to Washington and so, upon, return the PTI threw Imran Khan a homecoming, complete with garlands and applause, leading the premier to say he felt as if he had come home after winning the World Cup and not from an official visit.

Black day in Lahore as black coats turn violent

Policemen detain a lawyer (R) following a clash between lawyers and doctors in Lahore. — AFP
Policemen detain a lawyer (R) following a clash between lawyers and doctors in Lahore. — AFP

Protests by lawyers in Pakistan is not an anomaly but the one on December 11 stands out because of its venue — and target: a hospital in Lahore.

Hundreds of charged lawyers attacked the Punjab Institute of Cardiology (PIC), allegedly tortured doctors and attendants and damaged hospital property and forced the critical patients to rush for life. Their reason? They were apparently on a mission to avenge a group of lawyers, who had been beaten up at the PIC a few weeks ago, soon after some video clips went viral on the social media showing some doctors making fun of the lawyers while recalling the incident.

According to witnesses, there was chaos as beds were hastily dragged to hideouts, in a few cases the washrooms down the corridor away from the wards, after the mob carrying clubs and rods forced its entry into the government-run hospital.

Punjab Information Minister Fayyazul Hassan Chohan was manhandled when he arrived for damage control; many journalists, including a woman, and police personnel besides attendants of the patients were also dealt with brute physical force; a police van was set on fire; some protesters in the mob carried weapons and fired into the air; a mob stormed into the emergency department; and four PIC patients, including a girl and an elderly woman, died during the time extreme fear reigned over the hospital.

The government registered a case under terrorism clauses against the lawyers.

The entire episode was unjustifiable and shameful. What made it worse was other lawyers — with certain exceptions — and bar associations doubling down on the brazen disregard for the norms of decency and the law itself, demanding that the lawyers arrested for running amok like members of a street gang be released immediately. A nationwide strike call issued by several bar associations was enforced the next day through threats and intimidation against those reluctant to participate.

Recently, a group of 55 senior lawyers called upon the Pakistan Bar Council (PBC) — the mother regulatory body of lawyers — to proceed against delinquent lawyers who violated the law and committed illegal acts. Their reason? Under no circumstances can an attack on a hospital be justified.

The Royals are coming

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge Prince William and Kate Middleton visit the iconic Badshahi Mosque in Lahore. — Reuters
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge Prince William and Kate Middleton visit the iconic Badshahi Mosque in Lahore. — Reuters

In October, Pakistanis got a break from heavy news as Britain’s Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William and Kate Middleton, arrived on their first visit to Pakistan.

It was the first royal tour to the country since 2006 when Prince Charles and Camilla, the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, travelled to Pakistan.

The visit was described by Kate as “really special”, according to CNN and saw William pay tribute to Pakistanis who had endured much sacrifice and “helped to build the country that we see today”.

As the royal couple toured Islamabad, Chitral, Lahore and Rawalpindi amid tight security, colourful and vibrant pictures of the duo visiting a girl’s school, dining with the prime minister, interacting with the Kalasha community, and playing cricket at the National Cricket Academy (among other engagements) made front page in newspapers in Pakistan as well as UK.

Besides putting Pakistani designers on the map, the couple's visit helped travellers find Pakistan on the map. In December, Pakistan topped Condé Nast Traveller's list of best holiday destinations for 2020 — a list not taken lightly by those planning their upcoming holidays.

"Thwarted by tales of terrorism and Taliban rule, Pakistan’s tourism industry has been stymied for the past two decades. But ancient valleys, relaxed visa restrictions and a high-profile royal visit from the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge at the end of 2019 mean that at a start of a new decade this remarkable country is also entering a new era," noted the article.


Header illustration by Mushba Said.