ISLAMABAD: The Supreme Court, hearing an appeal filed by Messrs Monal group of companies, wondered on Monday how the Margalla Hills National Park (MHNP) could be converted into the military’s grassland.

Headed by Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Qazi Faez Isa, a three-judge bench had taken up the Monal group’s appeal against an Islamabad High Court (IHC) judgement of Jan 11, 2022, which ordered the government to seal, and take over possession, of Monal Restaurant, perched atop the picturesque Margalla Hills.

The court also asked the administration to submit a statement identifying the “real owner” of land measuring 8,600 acres at the MHNP.

On March 8, 2022, the Supreme Court suspended the Jan 11 IHC directive to the Capital Development Authority (CDA) and the Islamabad Wildlife Management Board (IWMB) to take over possession of the restaurant and seal its premises.

Orders administration to submit statement identifying ‘real owner’

The high court had held that the lease agreement between the management of Monal Restaurant and the CDA had expired. Furthermore, the IHC declared as null and void an agreement, signed on Sept 30, 2019, between Monal Restaurant and the Remount, Veterinary and Farms Directorate (RVFD), a military wing functioning under the Military Estate Officer (MEO).

On Monday, Chief Justice Qazi Faez Isa wondered whether RVFD was a legal entity, but was told that it was functioning under the General Headquarters (GHQ). The CJP observed, however, that only a legal entity could file a reply before the Supreme Court and wondered how these components featured in the agreement.

Advocate Arafat Ahmed informed the apex court that the CDA owned the land and won’t transfer it to any other entity.

‘Land belongs to govt, not army’

Sensing reluctance on part of the government lawyer regarding the question of ownership, the CJP observed that the land belongs only to the government, and not to the army.

Advocate Salman Akram Raja, who was representing Monal Restaurant, contended that RVFD claims to own the land where the restaurant was situated and the issue was the subject matter of a civil suit to determine who the actual owner was.

He said his client was regularly depositing the monthly rent to the court concerned. The counsel said, however, he would be happy if the CDA was declared the owner.

In reply to a question by the court who put possession of the land under the Monal Restaurant’s management, Salman Raja conceded it was done by the CDA.

Justice Irfan Saadat Khan, a member of the bench, wondered whether the petitioner was seeking a declaration that the Monal management was the lawful leaseholder of RVFD instead of the CDA.

Chief Justice Isa said the management did not have the right to choose its tenants. At the moment, the restaurant was a trespasser since possession had become illegal after expiry of the lease agreement, the CJP observed.

The right of the restaurant flows from the CDA, but by bringing a plea against it, the management had itself destroyed the case, Justice Isa said. “It’s a classic case of suicide bomber.”

Salman Akram Raja recalled the entity had invested heavily on the premises and referred to a computer-generated letter issued by the Defence Division stating that ownership of the land belongs to RVFD since it was demarcated in favour of the directorate in 1901.

But the CJP said the letter was without any signature and asked the counsel to furnish documents to prove that the land was allocated to RVFD.

The petitioner should also name Britain’s King Charles as respondent in the case if the lands were allocated in 1901, the CJP observed.

“Show me one entitlement or land registry to prove that 8,600 acres of land belongs to the military,” the CJP said. “I hope it doesn’t turn out to be a classic case of gun to the head.”

Justice Saadat said: “It’s a case of taking over possession of lands by the military from CDA.”

The CJP observed: “If nobody knows anything and no document was placed, the court can call even the former army chief to ask him when this meeting was held. This property belongs to the people of Pakistan, and not the military.”

Published in Dawn, March 12th, 2024

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