The Supreme Court on Thursday barred authorities from making new appointments and transferring officials involved in "high-profile" and National Accountability Bureau (NAB) cases as well as those being heard by special courts.

The directives came as a five-judge larger bench took up the suo motu case on apprehensions that criminal justice might be undermined by people in positions of authority. The bench comprised Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Umar Ata Bandial, Justice Ijazul Ahsan, Justice Munib Akhtar, Justice Sayyed Mazahar Ali Akbar Naqvi and Justice Mohammad Ali Mazhar.

The court also issued notices to the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) director general, the NAB chairman and the interior secretary. The court asked the parties concerned to give an explanation as to why there was "interference" in criminal cases, and stopped the NAB and FIA from withdrawing cases till further orders.

Notices were also issued to all the provincial prosecutor generals and advocate generals.

In addition, the FIA and NAB were asked to provide an explanation for the transfer/posting of officials in the prosecution and investigation wing. The court also asked to be provided with a record of the past six weeks regarding the transfer/posting of officials.

The court also asked to be informed about the steps being taken to protect the record of criminal cases and directed for the record of high-profile cases to be checked and sealed. When Attorney General for Pakistan (AGP) Ashtar Ausaf protested against this, the CJP said that the record of ongoing cases would not be sealed, only that of the prosecution.

During the hearing, the CJP observed that there should be "no interference in the prosecution process or the prosecution wing".

The CJP also said that FIA's former director Mohammad Rizwan, who was probing the money laundering charges against Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and his son Punjab Chief Minister Hamza Shahbaz, was also transferred and later died of a heart attack.

"We are concerned over these developments," the CJP said. Justice Bandial also stated that according to news reports, "thousands" of people had benefitted after their names were removed from the no-fly list.

"We have been seeing such news reports for the past one month. This has an effect on the rule of law," the CJP said, adding that it was the court's responsibility to maintain peace and trust in society under the Constitution.

The CJP also stated that the suo motu was not meant to embarrass or hold anyone responsible. "It is meant to protect the criminal justice system and the rule of law," he observed.

The court wants the implementation of Article 10-A (right to fair trial), Article 4 (due process) and Article 25 (equality of citizens), he said, adding that notices were being issued to the parties concerned. He also expressed the hope that the federal government would cooperate in providing an explanation.

Justice Naqvi noted that the FIA prosecutor had filed a written application in the court stating that he was told to not appear in the money laundering case against PM Shehbaz and CM Hamza, while Justice Akhtar observed that the transfers and postings were "apparently targeted".

However, the AGP contended that the FIA would have a proper reason for making the changes. Justice Akhtar replied by saying the court was concerned which was why the chief justice took notice, and asked the AGP to cooperate.

At one point, CJP Bandial remarked that the court was only concerned with ensuring justice. "We want to maintain the dignity, honour and respect of the investigation process. We are not doing this for point-scoring. We will not be affected by any kind of criticism.

"We are answerable to Allah and the Constitution. We do not need praise and are not afraid of criticism. We only want the provision of justice which is done at the conclusion of a case," the CJP remarked.

The chief justice observed that the social media cells of political parties were very strong and the court had been observing developments while remaining a silent spectator.

"The accused in the cases have not been convicted yet. No one should tamper with the justice system," he warned without taking any names, adding that the apex court was reviewing judicial proceedings.

Special courts in Karachi and Lahore lack judges while three accountability courts in Islamabad were also empty, Justice Bandial observed.

Subsequently, the court stopped the FIA and the NAB from withdrawing cases till further orders. The hearing was later adjourned till May 27.

Suo motu notice

A day earlier, the CJP had taken suo motu notice on the recommendations of a SC judge on perceived interference in the independence of the prosecution branch in the performance of its power and duties for investigation and prosecution of pending criminal matters involving persons in authority in government.

According to a press release issued by the apex court, such interference could influence the prosecution of cases, result in tampering or disappearing of evidence in courts or in possession of prosecuting agencies and lead to transfers and postings of officers on key posts.

The press release said that such actions, along with "media reports" about changes in accountability laws, were likely to "undermine" the functioning of the country's criminal justice system.

"That [is tantamount] to violation of fundamental rights affecting the society as a whole and eroding [of] the confidence of the people in the rule of law and constitutionalism in the country," it added.

The SC press release did not indicate which "pending criminal matters" it was referring to. However, the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) is currently pursuing a money laundering case against Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and Punjab Chief Minister Hamza Shehbaz, whose indictment has been delayed since February.

The notice also comes amid allegations levelled by the PTI that soon after coming into power, the present coalition government allegedly started influencing different cases and transferring investigators or officers supervising cases, especially related to corruption allegations.

Read: Imran hails verdict, asks SC to hear cases against Sharifs

It is also pertinent to mention here that key figures from within the allied parties of the new government have called for either complete dissolution of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) or amendments to the corruption watchdog's laws.

On Tuesday, the cabinet consented to amending NAB's "draconian laws" to do away with political victimisation. The meeting also constituted a committee, which would be headed by the federal law minister, for this purpose.

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