Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif on Monday took exception to remarks made by Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Umar Ata Bandial during the Supreme Court hearing on the postponement of polls in Punjab.
For the past week, the top court has been hearing the PTI’s petition against the Election Commission of Pakistan’s (ECP) decision to postpone polls to the Punjab Assembly till October 8. Earlier today, the court reserved its verdict in the case.
During the hearing conducted on March 31, the CJP had made the following remarks: “Today, when you go to parliament, you find people addressing the parliament who were till yesterday in captivity, imprisoned, declared traitors. They are now talking over there, and being respected because they are representatives of the people.”
The remarks had come a day after a bill aimed at clipping powers of the CJP and giving the right to appeal in all suo motu cases with retrospective effect sailed through the Senate without being sent to the relevant standing committee. The bill, titled the ‘Supreme Court (Practice and Procedure) Bill 2023’, seeks to take away the discretionary powers of the CJP to take suo motu notice, form benches and allocate cases in an individual capacity.
Addressing the CJP’s remarks on the floor of the National Assembly, the premier said that Pakistan’s history was rife with examples of individuals serving prison sentences for having a particular stance or point of view.
“To serve a prison sentence in a criminal case, in a just society, at the hands of a fair judge is a matter of dishonour,” he said.
However, the PTI government headed by Imran Khan was consumed with putting opposition leaders behind bars, Shehbaz said, adding that he was also among the politicians who were jailed during the previous government.
“Imran sent me to jail not once, but twice. He was fully prepared to send me to jail for a third time.”
The prime minister also recounted the various legal proceedings he had to face during the PTI government’s tenure. He also noted that he was granted bail by different courts.
“It is God’s grace that I was released on merit and that I am here today. My crime was that I […] fully raised my voice against the government’s wrongdoings. But this was not acceptable to Imran who considered us a thorn in his side,” the premier said.
Referring to the CJP’s remarks, PM Shehbaz asked: “Is it a crime that after having successfully fought my case in the high courts, a decision is then made based on merit? Is this a matter of respect and pride or shame? […] is it a matter of shame or respect that I am present in this House today and can speak with my head held high?”
PM Shehbaz said that the CJP had stated that those who had served prison terms in the past were now making speeches in parliament but questioned if he would say anything about the “baseless cases” against the former opposition.
“I want to ask the chief justice, that a judge against whom there have been serious allegations, what message do you want to send to the nation by having him sit alongside you?” the premier asked without taking any names.
The premier said that lawmakers who had secured bail in “baseless cases” had the right to represent the aspirations of the people who had elected them.
“It is not a crime that we have come here after serving prison sentences and obtaining bail on merit. But you have a person, against whom there have been serious allegations of corruption, sitting alongside you.”
The prime minister said that as an elected representative, he would first look at himself before saying anything, adding that this principle “applies to everyone”.
The premier wished that the CJP would have instead talked about the UK’s National Crime Agency’s investigation against him wherein it had found no evidence of any criminal activities or the apology issued by the Daily Mail after it accused the premier of “stealing British foreign aid money”.
“He (CJP Bandial) did not remember all of this but he remembered that I was making a speech after serving a prison sentence. This double standard can not continue.”
During his speech, the premier also said that the entire coalition government had expressed a lack of confidence in the three-member SC bench hearing the PTI’s plea against postponement of polls.
He said that if CJP Bandial constituted a full court to hear the matter, “then the nation will have no difficulty in accepting that decision”.
Shehbaz said that for such a “complicated and contentious decision” to be issued by a three-member bench was “100 per cent against the principles of justice”.
‘Get your own house in order first’
Meanwhile, Law Minister Azam Nazeer Tarar on the floor of the assembly recounted the developments in the case thus far. He noted that the court had reserved its verdict and would announce it tomorrow (Tuesday).
He said that if such a “sensitive national and constitutional matter” was decided without taking the rest of the top court judges on board, it would become a “controversial decision” which would not have the nation’s support.
He noted that the CJP had previously stated that politicians should sit down together and solve issues among themselves.
“I request you (CJP Bandial) to get your own house in order first. There is division in your house and dissenting opinions are coming forth,” the minister said.
He reiterated the government’s demand for the constitution of a full court to decide the matter.