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ISLAMABAD, March 22: Against the backdrop of a raging debate in the country on his fate, Pakistan’s suspended chief justice, Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, said on Thursday he was “entirely innocent” and, therefore, called for an open trial by the Supreme Judicial Council.

He also forcefully defended his decision to accept the invitation of the legal fraternity to address them in the coming days, stating that “taking bar associations into confidence about (the) prevailing constitutional issues is the duty of every chief justice”.

In an exclusive interview with Dawn — the first given to any Pakistani or international news organisation since the presidential action on March 9 — Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry remained extremely cautious about the choice of issues, and even words, ostensibly to avoid having any impact on his case. Matching the serenity of the Judges’ Colony in Islamabad, the chief justice, sent on forced leave, was sitting in the salon of his official residence.

Dressed in a black kurta over white shalwar with Peshawari chappal, all through the interview Mr Iftikhar Chaudhry held a soft smile and looked confident enough to deal with any adversity. “I am proud that each member of my family has stood by me in this difficult and trying time. They have given me strength. I believe that Allah the Almighty will vindicate me,” said Mr Iftikhar Chaudhry.

Stilted and cautious, Mr Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry’s each word was carefully chosen to leave little room for ambiguity. Still, he was quite clear about the way things have shaped up during the last couple of weeks and spoke about a number of issues, ranging from his decision to address various bar associations, to the support he was getting from the legal fraternity, particularly in the form of resignations by a number of judges and, while insisting he was “entirely innocent”, the chief justice called upon the Supreme Judicial Council to grant him a “public trial” so that the council’s own image does not suffer.

Defending it as a perfectly ‘usual’ mode of behaviour for any chief justice, Mr Iftikhar Chaudhry dispelled the impression that an interface with the judicial fraternity was in response to the current judicial showdown with the government. “As a judge I firmly hold that I can speak to the Bar about constitutional issues of interest to the Bar and the Bench”. But conscious of the controversy such a move could generate, he said, “I resort to no political talk or speech”.

Still, Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry maintained, as a chief justice it was his duty to take “the Bar Associations into confidence about (the) prevailing constitutional issues”.

Acknowledging the decision of those judges who had resigned in his support, Mr Chaudhry unequivocally praised them by stating that he had “great respect for those judges of the High and subordinate courts who have sacrificed their jobs for the cause of the rule of law”.

During the interview, he laid great emphasis on having an open trial, enabling the people to decide his innocence. “With reference to this trial my plea is that I am entirely innocent. That is why I want the public to know of the charges as well as of my defence. This should not cause any embarrassment to anyone, and certainly not to me. Since I’m innocent and want to enter upon my defence, I want all the citizens of Pakistan to know that their chief justice is not at fault,” said Mr Iftikhar Chaudhry.

Besides emphasising his desire to let the people judge him, Mr Iftikhar Chaudhry also talked at length about the various cases he had taken up during the course of his curtailed tenure as the chief justice of the Supreme Court.

Mentioning specifically certain landmark cases, which instantly raised his stature as the adjudicating authority — enjoyed by nobody in the recent past — he talked about hearing petitions against rising oil and pharmaceutical prices involving the interests of large multinationals, preventing public parks being converted into exclusive (mini)golf clubs or commercial complexes, strictly enforcing building regulations and decreeing the demolition of elitist encroachments on public lands, prohibiting the cutting of forests in the construction of an elitist township known as New Murree in the foothills above Islamabad, instituting inquiries into disappearances, providing relief to rape victims, banning forced marriages and the exchange of girls and women to settle disputes according to local customs.

Last year, he also dealt a severe blow to the administration by annulling the privatisation of the largest industrial unit in Pakistan, the Pakistan Steel Mills. “The cases which were pending were the Gwadar land scam and certain constitutional issues. I was also going to look into the privatisation of the Habib Bank,” revealed Mr Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry.

In the last one year alone, he had taken suo motu notice of more than 6,000 cases of human rights’ abuse across the length and breadth of the country. In the two years since his elevation to that office the chief justice had cleared a massive backlog of cases and taken up, suo motu, several causes close to environmentalists and social reformers.

Despite this record, the chief justice refused to talk about the reference against him or of any individual allegation. He also did not want to speak about the future plans or of the defence that he intended to offer before the Supreme Judicial Council. For that he has nominated a panel of lawyers headed by Aitzaz Ahsan and including Munir Malik, Hamid Khan, Tariq Mahmood, Ali Ahmed Kurd and Qazi Anwar.

The panel, said the chief justice, was drawn from all the provinces of

Pakistan and comprised senior lawyers who held representative positions in the Pakistan Bar Council and the Supreme Court Bar Association.

The chief justice declined to talk about his meeting with the president and the circumstances in which he visited the Camp Office of the president on March 9. He said that these matters would be taken up in the course of the proceedings of the reference before the Supreme Judicial Council and would agitate them at that forum.

The Supreme Judicial Council, headed by Mr Justice Rana Bhagwandas who is expected to take oath as acting chief justice at the weekend, having returned from his vacation in India, is slated to meet on April 3.