Govt forms 3-member judicial commission to probe veracity of audio leaks ‘eroding trust in superior judges’

Published May 20, 2023
This combination of photos shows Islamabad High Court Chief Justice Aamer Farooq (L), senior puisne judge of the Supreme Court Justice Qazi Faez Isa (C) and Balochistan High Court Chief Justice Naeem Akhtar Afghan (R). — Pictures via IHC/SC websites and Facebook.
This combination of photos shows Islamabad High Court Chief Justice Aamer Farooq (L), senior puisne judge of the Supreme Court Justice Qazi Faez Isa (C) and Balochistan High Court Chief Justice Naeem Akhtar Afghan (R). — Pictures via IHC/SC websites and Facebook.

The government on Saturday constituted a judicial commission comprising three senior judges tasked with probing the veracity of recent audio leaks and “their impact on the independence of judiciary”.

According to a notification issued by the government — a copy of which is available with Dawn.com — the commission will be headed Justice Qazi Faez Isa, senior puisne judge of the Supreme Court, and also comprise Islamabad High Court Chief Justice Aamer Farooq as well as Balochistan High Court Chief Justice Naeem Akhtar Afghan.

Following the notification of its establishment, the government instructed the commission to promptly commence an inquiry and to conclude the investigation within 30 days.

“However, if the commission requires further time, the federal government shall grant it,” the notification added.

The series of audio leaks first began last year when private conversations featuring key government and opposition figures — including Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, PTI Chairman Imran Khan, PML-N Vice President Maryam Nawaz, and others — surfaced on social media.

However, the commission formed has been tasked with probing only the recent round of audio leaks that began this year and either pertain to the judiciary or involve sitting and former judges.

In February, audios allegedly involving a sitting judge of the Supreme Court were leaked, leading to demands from the legal community for an investigation and appropriate measures if the leaks were verified.

The leaked audios were claimed to contain conversations between the judge and prominent politicians as well as specific lawyers. They quickly spread across social media and mainstream media platforms.

In April, another leaked conversation stirred up a storm in the country’s political landscape featuring a conversation between two women, one of whom is said to be the mother-in-law of a top-ranking serving judge of the Supreme Court, while the other is spouse of one of the PTI’s legal advisers — Khawaja Tariq Rahim.

While the identities of the women in question could not be independently verified, the clip — which had been widely circula­ted on social and mainstream media — evoked a stern reaction from across the political divide, along with calls for a thorough probe.

In the same month, two audios linked to former chief justice Saqib Nisar were leaked. One audio implicated his son, while the former top judge questioned the authenticity of the other audio, which allegedly featured a conversation between him and PTI’s legal adviser Khawaja Tariq Rahim.

According to the government notification, a wide circulation of controversial audios had been “witnessed on the national electronic, print and social media, allegedly regarding the Judiciary and former Chief Justices/Judges, conversation raising serious apprehensions about the independence, impartiality and uprightness of the Chief Justices/Judges of the Superior Courts in the administration of justice.”

It said such audio leaks had “eroded public trust and serious concerns have been raised by the general public regarding independence, impartiality and uprightness of the chief justices/judges of the superior courts”.

Furthermore, the notification highlighted the significance of the judiciary as one of the main pillars under the Constitution. It expressed concern that when the independence of the Judiciary is compromised, it undermines society’s confidence.

The notification stated, “The society’s confidence is deeply affected when the independence of the judiciary is tarnished, as it plays a pivotal role in upholding the rule of law and ensuring justice for all.”

Under the terms of reference in the notification, the government mentioned each of the aforementioned audio leaks.

The commission is entrusted with the responsibility of investigating whether any violations have occurred in relation to “the administration of justice, the independence of the judiciary, the right to a fair trial, and the equality of citizens”.

“If the stated audios are fake or fabricated, to inquire into and fix responsibility with regards, as to who is making these and recommend action to be taken in this regard; and any matter ancillary and incidental thereto or which the Commission deems fit to inquire into it in the interest of justice,” it added.

The government said the commission will have “all the powers that are granted to it under Pakistani Commissions of the Inquiry Act 2017” while directing executive authorities in the federation and the provinces to act in aid of the commission in discharge of its functions and to comply with any of its directions.

‘Deliberate omission’

Reacting to the development, Imran said the terms of reference stated in the government’s notification “suffer from a deliberate omission”.

“They fail to take into account the issue that who is behind unlawful and unconstitutional surveillance of the Prime Minister’s Office and sitting judges of the Supreme Court,” he said in a tweet.

The PTI chairman added that the commission should be “empowered to investigate the powerful and unknown elements who tap and record telephone conversations of citizens including high public functionaries”.

Imran termed phone tapping a “serious breach of privacy guaranteed under Article 14 of the Constitution (inviolability of the dignity of man, etc)”.

“Not only those who illegally retrieve data through unlawful phone tapping and surveillance should be held accountable but those who through fabrication and tampering of different phone calls leak them on social media also need to be held accountable,” he maintained.

The ex-premier further said, “Democracies governed by the rule of law propose that the state should not arbitrarily intrude into certain aspects of life. The right to privacy and dignity guaranteed under Article 14 is patently infringed whenever the state unlawfully surveils an individual.

“Some of the recent leaked calls were made over what was supposed to be a secure phone line in the PM Office. Nevertheless, they unlawfully were tapped and fabricated and tampered with.”

Seemingly, he added, “the elements behind such audacious tapping operate in a manner outside the command and even knowledge of the PM of Pakistan”.

“Who are these actors who are above the law and outside the command of even the prime minister of the country, and who resort to such illegal surveillance with impunity?” he asked, concluding that such elements needed to be held and identified by the commission.

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