NAB laws case: In first courtroom interaction with CJP Isa, Imran laments trouble seeking legal advice

Published May 30, 2024
From left to right: Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Qazi Faez Isa and comprising Justice Aminuddin Khan, Justice Jamal Khan Mandokhail, Justice Syed Hasan Azhar Rizvi and Justice Athar Minallah. — Photo courtesy: SC website
From left to right: Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Qazi Faez Isa and comprising Justice Aminuddin Khan, Justice Jamal Khan Mandokhail, Justice Syed Hasan Azhar Rizvi and Justice Athar Minallah. — Photo courtesy: SC website

Former premier Imran Khan on Thursday, in his first courtroom interaction with Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Qazi Faez Isa, complained of difficulties in seeking legal assistance for a case about changes to accountability laws.

Imran, currently incarcerated at Adiala Jail, told CJP Isa, “They (jail authorities) do not let me meet my legal team. I am being kept in solitary confinement here. I neither have any material nor a library to prepare for the case.”

The development came as a five-member bench resumed hearing intra-court appeals (ICAs) moved by the federal government against the SC’s Sept 15 majority judgment, which struck down amendments to the anti-graft laws.

Today, the bench — headed by Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Qazi Faez Isa and including Justices Athar Minallah, Aminuddin Khan, Jamal Khan Mandokhail, and Hasan Azhar Rizvi — decided in a 4:1 ruling not to stream the proceedings live.

The last hearing had turned out anticlimactic as ex-premier Imran Khan had appeared via video link but did not get a chance to speak as a petitioner in the matter.

Earlier this month, the SC had ordered the federal and Punjab governments to facilitate Imran’s appearance before the court via video link from Adiala jail, where he is currently incarcerated.

While the May 14 hearing had been broadcast live, the last one was not, with the reason remaining unclear.

As per the court orders at the last hearing, Imran again appeared via video link today.

The bench took a short break to mull whether to live-stream the hearing and in a majority 4:1 decision, chose not to, with Justice Minallah dissenting from it.

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.

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 the previous hearing, Justice Isa had expressed his dismay over the main case against the amendments being prolonged to 53 hearings. He also questioned the suspension of the now-in-effect Practice and Procedures Act, which clipped the CJP’s powers.

Today, Makhdoom Ali Khan appeared on behalf of the federal government while Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Advocate General Shah Faisal Uthmankhel was also present. Makhdoom concluded his arguments in the case.

The court ordered that Imran be allowed to meet senior counsel Khawaja Haris, who earlier represented him in the first round of litigation, for legal assistance.

It further ordered that the former premier be provided with the complete record of the case. The hearing was then adjourned till the next week, with a date yet to be specified.

The hearing

Soon after the hearing began, the bench introduced a short break in the proceedings, retiring to mull whether to live-stream the hearing or not. “We will let you know in a bit about live-streaming the case,” the court said.

Justice Minallah — who had earlier stated that the top court could not deny an audience to the ex-premier if he wished to appear before it for the case — expressed his support for the live stream.

“If the case used to be broadcast live earlier, it should be live-streamed today as well,” he observed.

The KP advocate general said the case pertained to public interest, to which CJP Isa replied, “This is a technical case; there is no affair of public interest in it.”

When the hearing resumed, apologising for the delay in the proceedings, CJP Isa stated, “After consultation, we decided that the hearing would not be streamed live.

“We did not want to make any decision in a hurry,” the top judge said, adding that Justice Minallah dissented from the decision.

At this point, government counsel Makhdoom began presenting his arguments.

He contended that the NAB amendments were a part of the “government’s policy” and that “the judiciary cannot interfere in the Parliament’s powers”.

“I’ll speak about myself. I use social media and read newspapers. The prime minister said ‘black sheeps’,” Justice Mandokhail said, in a likely reference to PM Shehbaz Sharif’s speech on May 28.

In response, AGP Awan clarified that the term was “not used for the current judges”.

Justice Mandokhail remarked, “The NAB law kept being applied to those who remained outside the government. Then when those same people come to power, the others get caught in the NAB’s clutches.”

Here, Justice Minallah asked what reasons had been stated in support of the argument that the amendments were against the Constitution. “There is mention of initiating cases, which were below the level of corruption set under the law, at other judicial forums,” he noted.

“Cases [of corruption] worth Rs500,000 were heard by the Balochistan High Court,” Justice Mandokhail highlighted.

“The Parliament itself should decide whether to set short sentences or long. The Supreme Court can only review whether a law is Constitutional or not,” he added.

The top judge asked if suspects had been given benefits through the NAB amendments, to which Makhdoom replied in the negative, adding that the changes to the anti-graft laws had instead “specified the scale of the crimes”.

Justice Minallah then asked, “Did a few individual’s punishments not end after the NAB amendments? Was Mian Nawaz Sharif’s sentence not nullified after making edits in section 9a(v) of the NAB [ordinance]?

He stated that the former premier’s case pertained to assets and changes were made in the provision about evidence. The amendments were made in light of previous SC verdicts, the judge observed.

Here, CJP Isa asked if the KP government could introduce the NAB law that the Parliament had amended, to which Makhdoom replied in the positive.

“The provincial government of KP can make laws on its own,” the top judge said. Justice Minallah then said that the KP Ehtesab Commission Act was ended there due to losses.

The government counsel contended that PTI ministers “kept on holding press conferences and making statements against the NAB ordinance”. Justice Isa then replied, “Your arguments are easy that ‘make the minority ruling a majority one’.”

Makhdoom responded: “Even if the Parliament abolishes a punishment under a law, it has the power to do so. The Parliament can legislate to reduce the burden on the courts.”

He added that in a majority decision, the NAB was told to take action on corruption of upto Rs100 million, at which Justice Athar Minallah asked how the judiciary could decide the limit of corruption.

Highlighting that the minority decision had stated that “retired judges and generals should not be exempted from NAB law”, Justice Minallah asked the government counsel if he agreed with the opinion.

“My opinion is exactly the same, but the attorney general can give a better answer,” Makhdoom replied.

Justice Minallah recalled that in a case pertaining to former military dictator Pervez Musharraf, the Islamabad High Court had addressed NAB investigations.

“How can a judge be exempt from NAB laws? Why are we judges [considered] sacred cows?” he wondered, asserting that no one should be above the law.

Here, Justice Mandokhail observed that judges were “not included in the definition of Service of Pakistan” but were rather held a Constitutional role.

When Imran was allowed to speak, CJP Isa asked him whether he would like to present his arguments himself or have Haris argue on his behalf.

The ex-premier then sought 30 minutes to present his arguments. “I was neither provided with material to prepare nor am allowed to meet lawyers. I am in solitary confinement,” he lamented.

The PTI founder, referring to the general elections held earlier this year, said the “biggest robbery was committed in the country on February 8”, terming it a “matter of life and death for the country”.

The chief justice then directed Imran: “Do not speak about this right now. We are currently hearing the NAB amendments case.”

Addressing the CJP, the former prime minister said, “Our two petitions related to human rights violations are pending before you.”

When asked who his counsel was in those petitions, Imran replied Hamid Khan was. “Hamid Khan is a senior lawyer. He had to go abroad, hence in one case, a date of his choice has been fixed for hearing,” the CJP noted.

Here, Imran claimed, “Chief justice sahib, there is a one-window operation in the [Adiala] jail, which is being run by a colonel sahib. You may order him to allow my meeting with my legal team.

“They (jail authorities) do not let me meet my legal team. I am being kept in solitary confinement here. I neither have any material nor a library to prepare for the case,” he added.

“I wanted to meet lawyers previously as well but was not allowed,” Imran said.

Justice Isa then assured Imran that he would be provided with the required material and also allowed to meet lawyers, warning that if he sought a legal team’s services, his direct arguments would not be heard in the case.

“A legal expert’s assistance is vital for preparation. I want to meet Khawaja Haris and one or two other lawyers,” Imran insisted.

CJP Isa then stated that Haris could meet the ex-premier “whenever he wants”, adding, “Do not take 50 lawyers with you. One or two lawyers can meet the PTI founder when they wish.”

He also ordered that Imran be provided with the complete case records.

While Makhdoom had concluded his arguments in the case, Haris said he would require three hours to present his.

The hearing was then adjourned till the next week, with the chief justice saying that the date would be announced after reviewing the schedule.

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 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 May 14, 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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