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Not very convincing, Mr President

March 20, 2007

KARACHI, March 19: President Gen Pervez Musharraf said on Monday that a state of emergency would not be declared in the country and parliamentary elections would be held on time.

The president’s interview with Kamran Khan was seen as an attempt by the government — 10 days after the country’s most bitter judicial crisis pummelled the ruling establishment — to take the nation into confidence. But the president’s unconvincing answers — though made in a glib manner — found few takers among the close observers of the crisis.

It is ironic that while the president blames “tactical errors” on low-ranking government officials, he does not see that he is wrong to restrain the chief justice from discharging his duties. Many fundamental questions were left unanswered and, more crucially, unasked in the TV interview shown on Monday night.

The president insisted that Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry had not been summoned on March 9 – the day the president sent a reference against him to the Supreme Judicial Council.

“He actually called on me. He had called on me earlier as well. He had told me that he was sending a reference against a high court judge to the SJC. He had also said that a smear campaign had been initiated against him. When he called on me on March 9, I showed him the reference against him. I later called in the prime minister. I and the prime minister went off to say the Friday prayers as Justice Iftikhar read the detailed charge-sheet. I afterwards went to Karachi and the prime minister flew off to Lahore,” said the president, smugly.

Strangely enough, it was not asked why an acting chief justice was being sworn in exactly when the chief justice – who, according to the president, was not detained in the camp office at the Army House – read the detailed charge-sheet against him. It was also not asked on whose orders a police official intercepted the chief justice’s car on its way to the Supreme Court and “escorted” him home.

The president said he was dressed in army uniform because he was at work – “Should I have been in a sports kit?” he wondered – but he was not asked why he had deemed it proper to call in the media and take historic pictures of a chief justice sitting submissively in front of an army general in uniform.

President Musharraf was also not asked why he — despite his new-found openness about the issue — did not ensure that harsh treatment was not meted out to the chief justice and his civil liberties were not curtailed. His attempt to lay the blame entirely at the doorstep of small-time government officials sounds simplistic, if not misleading, because it had become known on March 10 that the chief justice was being held incommunicado.

The president was also not asked under what authority he restrained the chief justice – or, to use the ingenious expression employed by the state minister for information, made the chief justice “non-functional”. Constitutional experts concur that while the president can send a reference against the chief justice to the SJC, he cannot make the country’s top adjudicator “non-functional”.

President Musharraf disclosed that as enraged lawyers and demonstrators fought running battles with well-armed law-enforcement agencies on the days the SJC heard the reference against the chief justice, he looked out from the balcony of the Army House at the Supreme Court and found – hold your breath – not a single demonstrator. The anchorperson meekly suggested that perhaps the balcony did not have the right view, but the president asserted that there had been few protesters on the Constitution Avenue.

The president conceded that the judicial crisis was “mishandled” by him because he had not promptly taken the nation into confidence on all the relevant legal and constitutional issues. But, according to his lexicon, making a chief justice “non-functional” is not mishandling.

President Musharraf also disclosed that senior adviser to the prime minister Sharifuddin Pirzada was the first person to show him the clipping of a news item against the chief justice.

“He advised us on the constitutional and legal aspects of the reference. He has offered a technical excuse on why he cannot represent the state against the chief justice in the SJC. But he is part of the game,” he said, employing the word “game” for the way the chief justice has been suspended.

While the anchorperson did ask a question about the content of the reference – and the president shrugged his shoulders and said it was sub judice – he did not mention lawyer Naeem Bokhari’s letter which is believed to have played a crucial role in the preparation of the charge-sheet against the chief justice.

President Musharraf said Justice Rana Bhagwandas would become acting chief justice as soon as he came back, but then said: “I would say he must come back. If he comes back – and I hope he comes back – he will decide whether he wants to head the SJC or not.” The conditional clause in the answer – “and I hope he comes back” – is likely to fuel speculation about the return of a senior Supreme Court judge whom the government has not been able to contact since March 9.