Anticlimactic adjournment as NAB laws hearing featuring Imran ends without him speaking

Published May 16, 2024
From left to right: Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Qazi Faez Isa, former premier Imran Khan and Justices Athar Minallah, Jamal Khan Mandokhail, Aminuddin Khan, and Syed Azhar Hasan Rizvi. — File photos
From left to right: Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Qazi Faez Isa, former premier Imran Khan and Justices Athar Minallah, Jamal Khan Mandokhail, Aminuddin Khan, and Syed Azhar Hasan Rizvi. — File photos

A Supreme Court hearing on Thursday on a case about changes in the accountability laws turned out anticlimactic as ex-premier Imran Khan appeared via video link but did not get a chance to speak as a petitioner in the matter.

The development came after the SC on Tuesday, hearing the case about the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) laws, had ordered the federal and Punjab governments to facilitate Imran’s appearance on Thursday via video link from Adiala jail.

Justice Athar Minallah — part of the five-member bench hearing the case — had stated that the top court could not deny an audience to the ex-premier if he wished to appear before it for the case.

Today, the bench — headed by Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Qazi Faez Isa and also including Justices Aminuddin Khan, Jamal Khan Mandokhail, Athar Minallah and Hasan Azhar Rizvi — resumed hearing the case.

While the previous hearing was broadcast live, today’s hearing was not.

It remains unclear why the live stream did not happen when it originally did in Tuesday’s hearing.

According to Dawn.com correspondent, Imran appeared via video link dressed in blue. The PTI circulated a picture of the purported video call, which instantly went viral, with a laptop screen showing him seated in a room wearing a light-blue shirt, freshly shaven, and seemingly uninterested as he rested his face on his hand.

Though the origin of the screen grab could not be verified independently, it appeared to match what was shown on the screen inside the court, according to a Reuters reporter present inside the courtroom.

Up to 15,000 of Imran’s supporters waited on the PTI’s YouTube channel for the court visuals to be aired, Reuters reported. That number fell below 5,000 when it became apparent the live stream was not happening.

Regarding Imran’s video link appearance, CJP Isa said “the same arrangement will continue”, according to the Reuters reporter.

Court staff were seen checking how such an image could have been captured when phones or cameras were not allowed in the courtroom, the Reuters reporter said, but the court did not take any formal notice or issue any orders for an investigation.

Imran remained seated throughout the hearing but looked uncomfortable and kept changing positions when he was not asked any questions by the court even after a couple of hours, according to the Reuters reporter.

If live-streamed, this would have been Imran’s first public appearance since his arrest from Zaman Park in August last year in the Toshakhana case despite reservations expressed by Law Minister Azam Nazeer Tarar about the SC’s directives.

A day ago, a division bench of the Islamabad High Court had granted the former premier bail in the £190 million case on “reasonable ground” while an Islamabad session court acquitted him in a 2022 case in connection with the Azadi March.

On the other hand, the PTI had expressed apprehensions about a visitors’ ban in the Adiala jail, saying the move was implemented to keep the party chief away from the SC proceedings.

Speaking at a press conference, PTI spokesperson Raoof Hasan had claimed that over the past two days, Imran’s security guards were suddenly changed at midnight and the hearings in the Al-Qadir Trust, cipher, and Toshakhana cases were postponed under various excuses, while the government’s counsel in the Iddat case suddenly left the country.

The apex court is seized with a number of intra-court appeals (ICAs) moved by the federal government as well as by a private citizen Zuhair Ahmed Siddiqui, who was an accused in a corruption case but not a party to the challenges to the NAB amendments case.

During today’s hearing, senior counsel Khawaja Haris, who earlier represented Imran Khan in the first round of litigation, appeared before the court for legal assistance while Makhdoom Ali Khan was present on behalf of the federal government.

The SC, noting that the bench was unavailable next week, adjourned the hearing indefinitely.

Shortly after the hearing had begun, PTI Senator Ali Zafar described Imran’s appearance before the court: “He was wearing sports clothes. We couldn’t hear him, but he could hear us.”

Speaking outside the SC, the lawyer said the case was in its “very early stages”, adding that whether or not Imran’s statements were broadcast live was the “bench’s jurisdiction”.

The hearing

At the outset of the hearing, Haris came to the rostrum, at which the chief justice said the former was a counsel in the “original case”, hence his absence was upsetting. “We would also want to hear your stance,” the CJP said.

Justice Isa then asked, “Did you submit the bill for the fee as a lawyer?”, to which Haris replied that he did not need a fee. “You are a senior to all lawyers,” the CJP remarked.

When asked, Haris confirmed to CJP Isa that he would assist the court in the matter. Justice Isa then directed the lawyer to present his arguments loudly so that Imran was also able to hear them on the video call.

Here, the federal government’s lawyer began presenting his arguments in the case, informing the apex court that the NAB amendment case was sub judice before the IHC.

“Was the petition pending before the high court accepted for hearing?” Justice Minallah asked, to which Makhdoom replied in the positive.

The chief justice then sought the complete case records in the IHC, including the order.

“What were the registrar office’s objections on the PTI founder’s plea back then?” Justice Minallah asked, to which Makhdoom responded that the petitioner had not approached any other forum for the matter.

The lawyer added that the SC had removed the objection and notices were issued to the respondents on July 19, 2022. Upon Justice Minallah asking how many hearings had taken place collectively in the main case, Makhdoom replied there were a total of 53.

CJP Isa asked why the case went on for an extended period, to which the government counsel replied that the petitioner took more time in presenting their arguments.

Here, Justice Mandokhail asked how much time it took to legislate the NAB laws in 1999. “The NAB laws were legislated within a month immediately after the martial law,” AGP Awan replied.

“It is very intriguing that the NAB amendment case was prolonged till 53 hearings,” the chief justice remarked.

“How was it accepted for hearing in the SC while sub judice before the [Islamabad] high court?” CJP Isa wondered. “Did the court answer this question in the main case’s judgment?” he further asked.

To this, Makhdoom replied that the court had addressed the matter in its order and read aloud the paragraph from it related to it.

Upon Justice Isa asking when the NAB amendments had been challenged in the IHC, the government counsel said that it was filed on July 4, 2022 while the SC had assigned a number to the petition before it two days later.

“Why did it take so long on the main case?” the CJP again asked. Makhdoom replied that the petitioner’s lawyer spent the “entire 2022” arguing his case.

Here, Justice Mandokhail asked how long it took to draft the “complete” NAO.

“[Former president Pervez] Musharraf came to power on Oct 12, 1999 and by December, the entire ordinance had been prepared. Musharraf had the entire ordinance made within two months,” the AGP replied.

The chief justice again expressed his dismay at the case going on for a lengthy period: “Why did it take such a long span to hear a case pertaining to a few amendments? Makhdoom Ali Khan, you were present [as a lawyer] in the case; why did you take so long?”

The government counsel replied that it took ample time only for the petition to be declared maintainable.

Here, Justice Minallah observed, “Whether it was good or bad, but the court had kept the Practice and Procedure Act suspended. Due to its suspension, there was no presence of a committee.”

Makhdoom then said that Justice Mansoor Ali Shah, part of the bench hearing the original petition, had advised not to proceed with the NAB law case without deciding the case of the Practice and Procedure Act.

At this point, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government’s lawyer came to the rostrum, stating that the hearing was not being broadcast live.

Justice Isa then told him to sit down since others’ arguments were ongoing. “We just wanted to bring it to your notice,” the lawyer said before sitting back down.

“Whether suspending the Practice and Procedures Act was right or wrong, it was nevertheless suspended by the order of this court,” Justice Minallah reiterated.

“If you suspend the law, and then this case is not heard, how will the country progress?” the chief justice wondered. “If you don’t like the law, then strike it down after hearing the whole case.”

“Till when will we keep living in this foolish age?” the CJP said, adding, “If I do not like a law, I suspend it; is this honesty?”

Justice Mandokhail questioned whether suspending a law at the stage of a bill was not equivalent to suspending the Parliament’s proceedings.

“Then why not just suspend the Parliament?” Justice Isa retorted. “Whether we break the law or the military does; it is the same thing,” the top judge remarked.

“Will we ever be able to move forward as a country? At least hear the case on a daily basis and decide it after suspending the law,” CJP Isa said. “Is hearing other cases after suspending a law and forming a bench against it not exploitation?”

Here, Makhdoom noted that Justice Isa as the senior puisne judge had raised concern on it, at which the CJP said, “Leave that aside. Do you not have your own point of view?”

“An affected party can file an appeal and that can be any individual,” Justice Minallah observed. Asking how the federal government was an affected party in the case, he explained that “only an affected person could file an appeal”.

However, Justice Mandokhail noted, “Not just an affected person. The law says that an affected party can also bring [an appeal].”

The chief justice then observed that there could be two interpretations: “The right to appeal has only been limited to the affected party and the affected party can also include members of the treasury bench who pass a bill.

“If this was the case, there would be 150 petitioners before us,” he remarked. Justice Minallah then highlighted that it was the legislators who had mentioned “affected party” in the law. “Strengthening the Parliament is the politicians’ job,” he added.

At this point, CJP Isa noted that the bench would be unavailable next week and adjourned the hearing indefinitely.

“If you have to bring ordinances, then shut down the Parliament. You impose one individual’s choice on the entire nation through ordinances. Is this not against democracy?” the top judge remarked.

“Should the president not write detailed reasons with ordinances?” he asked.

Subsequently, the hearing was adjourned indefinitely, with orders to ensure Imran’s presence via video link at the next hearing as well.

‘Sad, regrettable’ hearing not broadcast live: PTI

In a post on X, PTI spokesperson Raoof Hasan said: “The more they try to contain him, the more space he gains and more powerful his person [sic] gets.”

PTI MNA Sher Afzal Marwat said it was “regrettable” that the hearing was not broadcast to the public. In a post on X, he asked, “One must wonder who fears the nation’s favoured leader?”

Ex-federal minister Hammad Azhar said the “decision to not televise [Imran Khan]’s image shows you how fragile the regime is”. Meanwhile, leader Taimur Khan Jhagra said on X: “How sad. How predictable. And how convenient to have transparency only when it suits you.”

Former human rights minister Shireen Mazari, referring to the widely shared picture of Imran’s appearance, expressed her disbelief that the photo allegedly “caused such a storm in the SC”.

Imran “seems to have lost some weight (probably shed what he had put on after being shot) but otherwise the same expression of composed attentiveness with the questioning forehead [sic] furrows”, the former PTI leader said on X.

Former Pakistani ambassador to the US Husain Haqqani took to X to express his support for Imran’s “constitutional and legal rights”. “If after putting a political leader in jail, even his picture has to be hidden from the public, then stop saying that we have a democracy here,” he said.

The NAB laws case

In 2022, amendments were made to the country’s accountability laws by the then-Pakistan Democratic Movement-led government.

The amendments made several changes to the National Accountability Ordinance (NAO) 1999, including reducing the term of the NAB chairman and prosecutor general to three years, limiting NAB’s jurisdiction to cases involving over Rs500 million, and transferring all pending inquiries, investigations, and trials to the relevant authorities.

Subsequently, Imran had moved the apex court against the amendments, claiming that the changes to the NAB law were made to benefit the influential accused persons and legitimise corruption.

The petition had pleaded that the fresh amendments tend to scrap corruption cases against the president, prime minister, chief ministers and ministers and provide an opportunity to the convicted public office-holders to get their convictions undone.

In September last year, after 53 hearings, the SC announced its 2-1 verdict, ordering the restoration of corruption cases against public office holders that were withdrawn due to the amendments and declaring Imran’s plea to be maintainable.

The next month, a five-judge SC bench took up intra-court appeals (ICAs) against its Sept 15 judgment and stopped accountability courts from issuing a final verdict in graft cases.

In a subsequent hearing, CJP Isa had hinted that the proceedings could be started afresh if the counsel managed to “make a solid case” for the same, as earlier proceedings did not satisfy the requirements of the Supreme Court (Practice and Procedure) Act 2023.

It then resumed hearing the ICAs on Tuesday, ordering authorities to ensure Imran’s presence before the apex court via video link as he was a petitioner in the case.

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