The Islamabad High Court (IHC) on Friday directed a trial court to take up journalist Asad Ali Toor’s bail petition on March 16 (tomorrow) in a case about an online campaign against the judiciary.

The sessions court had initially scheduled the hearing on March 18 (Monday), reportedly due to the illness of an investigating officer. Toor’s lawyer, Advocate Imaan Zainab Mazari-Hazir, had criticised the proceedings as an example of the legal “process as punishment”.

In January, the car­e­taker government had formed a five-member joint investigation team (JIT) to “ascertain facts behind a malicious social media campaign” against the judiciary in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision to deprive PTI of its iconic electoral symbol — the bat.

On February 23, Toor was interrogated for nearly eight hours by Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) officials on the same matter. The interrogation had taken place despite the attorney general for Pakistan assuring the apex court last month that the FIA would not take action before the general election on the notices sent to journalists.

The top court had adjourned the hearing in the case till the first week of March.

Toor was, however, arrested by the FIA on Feb 26. The next day, an Islamabad district and sessions court had granted the FIA a five-day physical remand of the journalist. On March 6, the same lower court had extended Toor’s physical remand for two days.

Eventually on March 8, the court sent the journalist to jail on a 14-day judicial remand.

According to the FIR (first information report), Toor was booked under Sections 9, 10 and 24 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (Peca), which deal with the offences of glorification of an offence, cyber terrorism and cyberstalking.

The FIR stated that Toor “built a false narrative” and publically launched a “malicious/obnoxious and explicit campaign” against “civil servants/government officials and state institutions”.

Today, a one-judge bench headed by IHC Chief Justice Aamer Farooq heard the case. The petitioner, Toor, was represented by Advocate Hazir.

The order, a copy of which is available with Dawn.com, stated: “Keeping in view the urgency expressed by the learned counsel […], the trial court is directed to hear the bail application of the petitioner on March 16, 2024.”

According to the order, IHC CJ also directed the FIA to appear before the trial court with the relevant case record.

The order noted that the trial court adjourned the bail proceedings filed before it “without any justification or basis”. It added that the contents of the case were examined thoroughly with the petitioner’s counsel’s assistance.

“The record shows that the petitioner had moved the bail application before the trial court in which the matter […] has been adjourned for March 18, 2024,” the order stated.

CPJ calls for Toor’s immediate, unconditional release

Meanwhile, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called on the authorities to “immediately and unconditionally” release Toor, return his devices and cease his harassment in retaliation for his journalistic work.

“The ongoing detention and investigation of journalist Asad Ali Toor, as well as authorities’ seizure of his devices and pressure to disclose his sources, constitute an egregious violation of press freedom in Pakistan,” said CPJ Asia Programme Coordinator Beh Lih Yi.

Yi said the authorities must cease using the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act and other “draconian laws to persecute journalists” and silence critical reporting and commentary.

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