The Islamabad High Court (IHC) on Monday directed Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif to review his decision of appointing Hanif Abbasi as his special assistant.

The court issued the directive while hearing a plea filed by former interior minister and Awami Muslim League (AML) chief Sheikh Rashid, who has challenged Abbasi's appointment as a special assistant to the prime minister (SAPM) on grounds of his 2018 conviction in an ephedrine case.

In his petition, Rashid pointed out that the Lahore High Court had only suspended Abbasi's sentence and not his conviction in the case, adding that “the conviction stood intact for all intents and purposes”.

Rashid again highlighted these objections at today's hearing, saying that a convict had been made an SAPM.

At this, IHC Chief Justice Athar Minallah asked whether any hearing in the drug case was held after the suspension of Abbasi's sentence.

"It has been four years and no hearing has been held," replied Rashid's lawyer.

Following that, the court issued notices to the respondents, directed the PM to review his decision of appointing Abbasi as his SAPM and adjourned the hearing till May 17.

IHC CJ asks Rashid to affirm whether he has faith in his court

Earlier at the hearing, Justice Minallah sought Rashid's affirmation that he had faith in his court.

"These courts are for everyone. Perhaps, people don't believe this," the IHC CJ remarked while addressing Rashid, adding that the opening of courts at midnight was being questioned at rallies.

On April 9, with the deadline set by the Supreme Court to hold voting on no-trust motion against then-prime minister Imran Khan fast approaching after a marathon NA session, the apex court and the IHC had opened their doors beyond their notified timings. The vote was eventually held and saw Imran voted out from the top office.

The IHC's decision to resume court activity at the unusual hour had come after a pre-emptive petition was filed asking the court to restrain Imran from de-notifying Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa as chief of the army staff. The then government had, however, denied having any such plans.

Later, Imran had asked the judiciary, notably at an April 13 rally, to explain why it had felt the need to open its doors at midnight.

Without making any reference to a particular instance, Justice Minallah said today that it seemed as if the PTI did not have faith in the courts. "It is said in rallies that courts are not independent."

Rashid — a longtime ally of Imran who was also part of the PTI's ousted coalition government — assured Justice Minallah that "we have approached the court because we have faith in it."

At this, the chief justice highlighted the significance of making it clear that "justice is being served".

"Big cases of this country are being heard in this court," he said, further telling Rashid that the IHC would hear his plea if he had faith in his court.

"There are other courts and judges who, too, can hear your cases. But if Imran Khan does not have faith [in this court] ... I will refer the case to another court," he stated.

He then recalled that in 2014 the court had ordered the release of detained PTI workers at 11pm.

Addressing Rashid, Justice Minallah said his lawyer would have surely informed him that as per rules, a chief justice could take up a case at any time.

He asked Rashid to inform the court within two days whether he had faith in it.

"If you have faith in it, then this court would hear your case. Also ask the PTI chairperson about this," Justice Minallah said, adding that the courts had been "issuing judgements for the weak".

At that, Rashid reiterated that he had appeared before the court because he had faith in it.

"I will talk to Imran Khan," he added.

Justice Minallah said, "One should have the respect for the judiciary in their heart."

He then again told Rashid to "decide by tomorrow" whether he had faith in his court.

At that, Rashid asserted that he was already decided about the matter.

"I have been a minister 16 times and that is why I have appeared before the court," he said.

The petition

Rashid had filed the petition challenging Abbasi's appointment on May 6. The petition was filed the petition before the IHC through Rashid's counsel Barrister Sajeel Shaharyar in which the Cabinet Division and Abbasi were nominated as respondents.

The petition pointed out that the Anti Narcotics Force (ANF) on July 21, 2012 registered an FIR against Abbasi under Section 9-C, 14 and 15 of the Control of Narcotics Substance Act, 1997 for selling 500kg ephedrine to drug smugglers instead of using the controlled chemical in medicine.

As per the charge sheet, the two officials of Arafaat Traders, the Karachi-based medicine distribution company to whom Abbasi claimed to have supplied 11,000 ephedrine-containing tablets denied Abbasi’s claim, the challan revealed, though the same company had earlier confirmed before the ANF that Abbasi had provided them ephedrine-containing tablets.

The CNS Court on July 21, 2018 found Abbasi guilty of selling 500kg of ephedrine to narcotics smugglers and a fine of Rs1 million was imposed on the PML-N leader along with the life sentence.

Seven other accused were acquitted in the case.

The sentence, however, was suspended in April 2019.

Rashid in the petition pointed out that the Lahore High Court vide order dated April 11, 2019 “only suspended the sentence of the Respondent No. 2 [Abbasi] and not the conviction” adding that “the conviction stood intact for all intents and purposes.”

Explaining the difference between the conviction and suspension of sentence, the petition stated that “in criminal jurisprudence, there is indeed a marked difference between conviction and sentence. Conviction is finding someone guilty positively of the offence(s) charged with whereas sentence is the punishment (imprisonment or fine or both) for being guilty of that offence.

Subsequently, Abbasi “is disqualified from holding the public office”, the petition said.

It said that “in the middle of April 2022, due to change in regime, a new government was formed and respondent No 2 was appointed as the special assistant to the prime minister.”

The petition termed the said appointment as illegal, unlawful and unconstitutional as he is inherently disqualified from holding this prestigious public office.”

The petition requested the court to set aside the notification for the appointment of Abbasi as SAPM.

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