The Supreme Court (SC) rejected on Wednesday a government request to issue a show-cause notice to PTI chief Imran Khan for allegedly flouting a May 25 order of the apex court that defined the limits for the party’s ‘Azadi March’ gathering in Islamabad and thereby committing contempt of court.

A five-member SC bench, in a 4-1 split decision, instead sought a reply from Imran on the matter before deciding on issuing him a notice. The decision came after the bench took up the interior ministry’s plea against the former prime minister.

The bench was headed by Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Umar Ata Bandial and comprised Justice Ijazul Ahsan, Justice Muneeb Akhtar, Justice Yahya Afridi and Justice Mazahar Akbar Naqvi. Among them, Justice Afridi disagreed with the majority decision.

The hearing began with by Additional Attorney General (AAG) Amir Rehman’s arguments who told the court that reports by intelligence agencies and police on the PTI’s May 25 ‘Azadi March’ had been analysed.

The PTI had attempted a long march to Islamabad in May this year, which was clamped down upon and suppressed by the police. Later, multiple cases were registered against Imran and other leaders of his party on charges of rioting and other offences.

The AAG said the court had enquired as to when had Imran asked people to reach D-Chowk — a location that the government argues was not within the remits defined by the SC for the PTI’s gathering.

He said the court’s May 25 order was issued at 6pm on May 25, while Imran had asked his supporters to reach D-Chowk at 6:50pm. The PTI chief, he added, had made another similar call at 9:54pm the same day.

Moreover, he continued, the ex-premier had made calls to reach D-Chowk even before the court order. And after Imran, PTI leaders Shireen Mazari, Fawad Chaudhry, Usman Dar, Shahbaz Gill, Saifullah Niazi and Sadaqat Abbasi also urged the protesters to reach D-Chowk, the AAG added.

He termed the call by Imran to reach D-Chowk “contempt of court” and noted that the PTI chief had ended the rally on May 26 after reaching Jinnah Avenue — a spot he said was at a distance of four kilometres from F-9, where the limits set for the rally ended.

Here, the CJP recalled that Imran said at the time that the court had directed to remove roadblocks from the march’s route. He added that from Imran’s statement, it seemed he had been informed of the court order.

“But the question is what was Imran told,” the CJP said. “Imran should make it clear as to who said what.”

At this, the additional attorney general reminded the court that PTI lawyers Babar Awan and Faisal Chaudhry had assured that no roads would be blocked and the protest would be confined to the designated area.

The CJP observed that there was no mention of the lawyers’ assurance in writing anywhere, adding that it would be appropriate to seek a reply from those who had given the assurance.

“If there is no written matter then there is no point in summoning anyone,” he said, noting that reports by relevant departments and agencies on the matter provided sufficient ground to seek a reply from Imran as well.

Moreover, he continued, “Imran will still have to appear before the court even if we issue a [show-cause] notice to him.

“We don’t want to make headlines. We want the supremacy of the law,” the CJP said.

The top judge added the court would seek a reply from Awan, Chaudhry and Imran on the matter and issue a notice to them for the purpose.

He observed that this was a case of civil contempt and “summoning the relevant individual may not be necessary here”. Justice Bandial also added that once their replies were submitted, the court would have a written record.

However, Justice Afridi contended whether there was any clause in the contempt law that said replies were to be sought before issuing show-cause notices.

“In the contempt law, either a notice is issued or the case is disposed of,” he said. “Imran Khan has committed contempt of court and he should be issued a notice.”

Disagreeing with Justice Afridi here, the CJP said that the court would not be issuing a contempt notice to Imran for now.

“Once he submits his reply, we will then review whether he committed contempt,” he said, adding that the court also wanted the PTI chief’s stance on the government’s allegations.

In the 4-1 split decision, the court sought Imran’s reply on the matter and directed that reports of Islamabad police, the Intelligence Bureau and Inter-Services Intelligence also be provided to him.

“The reply should be submitted in light of the reports,” the court directed.

The court also issued notices to Babar and Chaudhry, seeking clarification regarding protesters reaching D-Chowk.

“We have to see whether an assurance was given that [protesters] will not reach D-Chowk,” the CJP said.

The hearing was adjourned till October 31.

The plea

On October 13, the interior ministry instituted contempt of court charges against Imran for allegedly flouting the SC’s May 25 order.

In the May order, the petition recalled, the apex court had directed the PTI to hold his ‘Azadi March’ gathering in a ground located between sectors H-9 and G-9 in view of the categorical assurances on behalf of the party’s top leadership and their counsel that their rally would not cause any inconvenience or blockage of the Srinagar Highway or trouble the public and that the rally would be conducted in a peaceful and lawful manner.

Despite these assurances, the PTI top leadership, acting in blatant disregard for the directions, exhorted its supporters to reach D-Chowk, falsely professing that the court had allowed the march without any conditions.

The contempt petition pleaded for implementation of the apex court order for the protection of fundamental rights of the public, particularly residents of Islamabad and Rawalpindi.

The SC should also issue comprehensive guidelines for all future protests to be held in the federal capital that should include prior intimation of the date, selection of the venue, assurance of not causing any hindrance to public life and a commitment to ensure that the protesters would not cause any damage to public or private property, the plea said.

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