Sworn in, not at

Published September 21, 2023
The writer is an author.
The writer is an author.

IT was a first in Pakistan. Begum Sarina Isa stood next to her husband Qazi Faez Isa while he was being sworn in as the 29th chief justice of Pakistan on Sept 17 by President Arif Alvi. It was a small step for her gender. It was a giant leap backwards for President Alvi.

In 2019, President Alvi, on the orders of his PTI leader prime minister Imran Khan, had filed a presidential reference against Justice Isa, citing misconduct and non-disclosure of assets abroad held by his wife.

At first glance, the image of a couple standing side by side might have appeared a reenactment of the practice in the American White House, where wives stand next to their husbands while they are being sworn in as president. Begum Isa’s presence next to her husband had another deeper significance. They stood avenged, their joint snub to judicial persecution.

In June 2020, seven judges of a 10-judge bench of Justice Isa’s peers had quashed that presidential reference against him. However, in an unbecoming move, the bench ordered the Federal Board of Rev­e­nue “to conduct an inquiry into the judge’s family members’ foreign assets and submit a report to the Supreme Judicial Council”.

Will the CJP have time to heal the court?

Appearing in person before the same lordships who are now CJP’s Isa’s colleagues, she told them that the presidential reference had caused her to be “killed a thousand times”. In 2022, a contrite Imran Khan admitted that the filing of a presidential reference was a ‘mistake’. (Ironically, the accused is now CJP, and his accuser a convict in Attock jail.)

On March 30, 2023, the PDM Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif ordered the withdrawal of the curative review reference against Justice Isa. He said the Isa family had been “harassed and defamed under the guise of a presidential reference”.

The former chief justice, Umar Ata Bandial, served for 22 months. In one early hearing, soon after taking over, he quoted a paragraph from this column, published on Feb 17, 2022. The paragraph anticipated that “his priority in office will be to reduce the backlog of pending cases inherited from his predecessors. In 2001, there were 13,000, 20,000 in 2011, rising to 53,000 in 2022”. When he left office, the number had risen alarmingly to 56,544.

CJP Isa will have an even shorter tenure. He has only 13 months left before his retirement on Oct 25, 2024. Will he have time to heal the fractured Supreme Court, or will his stewardship, like his swearing-in, be remembered more for its symbolism than its substance?

The chief justice has appointed a woman Jazeela Aslam — another first — as registrar, the key portal for admission of cases for hearing before the Supreme Court.

His first day as chief justice proved another first. He arrived without an armed escort. (His predecessors were always accompanied by a phalanx of guards, even when one of them inspected the former Lahore Lunatic Asylum.)

He then convened a full 15-member bench to hear a set of petitions challenging the contentious Supreme Court (Practice and Procedure) Act, 2023 — a sad example of the ‘bitter’ constitutional litigation CJP Bandial complained had impacted adv­ersely the Supreme Court’s performance.

The proceedings were televised live — another first. Justice was being seen to be done. It is a novel form of Pakistani soap opera. But such exposure carries consequences. Schisms in the bench soon became apparent. The chief justice had all too often to remind his colleagues that they were paid by the public to adjudicate swiftly and fairly. Each day spent on word-fencing would add 200 new cases to the backlog.

Parliamentary proceedings have been televised for years. They have, however, gradually degenerated from hyperactivity to grandstanding into farce, and now tedium.

CJP Isa will also have to contend with a political patellar reflex, the knee-jerk reaction of every political party to seek redress directly from the Supreme Court, instead of addressing each other.

He should not expect anything from the present interim government — a forlorn hope of wannabes — “without pride of anc­estry or hope of posterity” (Ignatius Donn­elly). It appears determined to have its constitutional tenure of 90 days extended, if necessary by judicial dispensation.

Meanwhile, our interim prime minister is in New York to address the UN General Assembly on Sept 22. While there, we are told, he will “attend an important conference on climate change” and “meet world leaders on the sidelines”. They will not be surprised by his effrontery. They have seen and heard worse.

How soon after his return will the ECP announce the date of the next general elections? Does it really matter, when the result is already in the ballot box?

Incidentally, Agatha Christie conceived her mystery novels backwards. She knew their denouement before she started writing.

The writer is an author.
www.fsaijazuddin.pk

Published in Dawn, September 21st, 2023

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