Disappearance of 20 presiding officers a serious lapse: SC judge

Published March 25, 2021
Justice Umar Ata Bandial on Wednesday observed that the Supreme Court under-stood that the disappearance of 20 presiding officers during the by-poll in Daska on Feb 19 surely was a serious lapse. — Photo courtesy SC website/File
Justice Umar Ata Bandial on Wednesday observed that the Supreme Court under-stood that the disappearance of 20 presiding officers during the by-poll in Daska on Feb 19 surely was a serious lapse. — Photo courtesy SC website/File

ISLAMABAD: Justice Umar Ata Bandial on Wednesday observed that the Supreme Court under-stood that the disappearance of 20 presiding officers during the by-poll in Daska on Feb 19 surely was a serious lapse which had no precedence in the country’s election history.

But at the same time the court wondered why the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) handed down relief by ordering re-polling at the entire 360 polling stations in the NA-75 constituency on a complaint about irregularities at 23 polling stations.

A three-judge SC bench, headed by Justice Bandial and comprising Justice Sajjad Ali Shah and Justice Muneeb Akhtar, also hinted at handing down a decision on Thursday (today) after closing the hearing.

Earlier, the court was inclined to complete the hearing on Wednesday, but Advocate Salman Akram Raja, who was representing Syeda Nosheen Iftikhar from the court’s Lahore registry, said he wanted to cite certain documents to develop his case though he still had mild symptoms of coronavirus.

Apex court hints at handing down ruling in Daska by-poll case today

The judges after consultation with each other decided to postpone the proceedings to Thursday and acknowledged that the counsel had come forward to argue the case though he was undergoing treatment for the infection.

The Supreme Court took up an appeal filed by Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s Ali Asjad Malhi challenging the ECP’s Feb 25 decision to hold fresh by-election in NA-75 Daska, Sialkot.

The ECP had ruled re-polling would be conducted in the entire NA-75 constituency after suspicions emerged that results might have been ‘altered’ during the last by-election there.

The decision was given on an application filed by Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz candidate Syeda Nosheen Iftikhar.

On Wednesday, Justice Bandial also expressed surprised that Rangers’ personnel were not deployed during the election process, especially at sensitive polling stations when the trouble started.

“The services of Rangers were available but their deployment as a last resort was a mistake,” he observed.

Justice Bandial said that the court had no reasons to accuse the present government of creating trouble during the election process.

The observation came when Salman Akram Raja used the word “conspiracy” which was given effect to subvert the election on Feb 19 that was also established by a press release issued by the ECP on Feb 20.

The press release made it clear that when 20 presiding officers failed to reach the office of the Returning Officer there was a complete lack of cooperation on the part of the civil administration and Punjab Police, the counsel argued, but agreed that he should not use the word conspiracy.

However, he contended that the ECP had adopted the recourse to re-election when the trouble and irregularities were seen by the public at large which overwhelmed the entire election process.

The court asked the counsel to come up with factual material to prove his point, adding that his arguments should be such that it should be crystal clear.

The counsel argued that the Election Commission had the record of geo-fencing of 20 polling stations, adding that the 20 presiding officers with ballot papers, Forms-45 and other vital election material had disappeared along with the police escort provided to them throughout the night.

Advocate Raja also cited the Returning Officer’s report addressed to the ECP secretary on Feb 21, stating that during a question-answer session the presiding officers were found puzzled and terrified and they coined lame excuses for their disappearance.

He contended that the disappearance of 20 presiding officers was part of a constituency-wide scheme to manipulate the NA-75 by-election that had vitiated the entire electoral process.

In this regard the obsession of the administration with Zulfikar Virk, a police officer, should be noted by the court, he said.

The counsel recalled how even the chief election commissioner (CEC) was unable to access the inspector general of Punjab and the commissioner and deputy commissioner of Sialkot, adding that the provincial chief secretary was finally contacted at 3am by the CEC though he later become unavailable.

Earlier, when Advocate Mohammad Shahzad Shaukat, representing the petitioner, contended that the focus of the ECP complaint was against the Punjab government, Justice Sajjad Ali Shah reminded that the commission had regretted the role of the provincial administration, and not the Punjab government.

Published in Dawn, March 25th, 2021

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