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Letter of the law


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LETTER-WRITING is a dying art in the 21st century, and Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry’s epistolary focus may earn him a commendation one day from some academy of letters, but last week’s judicial overreach is unlikely to go down in Pakistan’s history as a particularly salutary episode.

Last week’s ruling by the Supreme Court not only stripped the nation of a government but also informed Pakistanis that they had effectively been prime minister-less for nearly two months, given that Yousuf Raza Gilani’s disqualification was retrospectively dated to April 26 — the day he was found guilty of contempt of court and sentenced to be detained for less than a minute.

Presumably on the basis of legal advice that an appeal would be futile, the government decided against filing one. Its failure to do so has been cited as a trigger for last week’s verdict.

The judgment comes in the backdrop of a scandal relating to allegations of bribe-taking by the chief justice’s son, especially after the accuser-in-chief was caught on camera chatting amicably to a caller who was ostensibly Gilani’s son.

And then Asif Ali Zardari’s first choice as a replacement prime minister, Makhdoom Shahabuddin, found himself facing arrest soon after his candidature was aired, on the basis of a warrant obtained by the military-controlled Anti Narcotics Force (ANF) in relation to a scandal over the manufacture of large amounts of ephedrine while he was health minister.

He has, not surprisingly, denied all insinuations of complicity in a case that also embroils one of Gilani’s offspring. Whatever the validity of the charges, however, the procurement of a warrant at this particular juncture suggested to many that the khaki institution was complicit in efforts to stymie the process of fielding a new government.

Zardari then decided to back the “covering candidate”, Raja Pervez Ashraf, who was duly sworn in as prime minister. By Monday he had a deputy in the shape of PML-Q’s Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, who was chief minister of Punjab for much of Gen Pervez Musharraf’s presidential rule.

There are no grounds for assuming that a fresh confederacy of Pervezes might bode better than the previous one, but there’s cause for greater alarm in the fact that virtually every report in the domestic and international press relating to the new top honcho refers to his troubled tenure as minister for water and power until 2010.

His relationship with the rental power plants that were supposed to solve Pakistan’s energy crisis excited much comment, and he was eased out of the portfolio two years ago. Given that association, it takes considerable chutzpah to put him forward as prime minister at the height of summer, during a time when power cuts extending for 20 hours or more have led to outbreaks of serious rioting in parts of Punjab.

It is perfectly possible, of course, that it was not Zardari’s intention to go out of his way to insult the Pakistani public. He had to come up with an unquestioning loyalist who would be tolerated by the PPP’s diverse coalition partners. He evidently managed to do so. The PML-Q, as a result, has 15 posts in the new cabinet.

And while ‘Raja Rental’, the sobriquet the new prime minister earned during his aforementioned ministerial posting, is likely to fall short of earning popular approbation, his vow to “make sure I live up to the example set by those who have come before me” shouldn’t prove terribly hard to fulfil. It would, after all, be an exaggeration to contend that Gilani’s undistinguished administration will be missed.

It was not incompetence or corruption that saw him off, though. It was his refusal to write a letter.

The letter was, the Supreme Court decreed, to be addressed to the Swiss authorities. The wording was never decreed, but it might have gone something like this:

“Dear Swiss Miss [or Prosecutress, or whatever] “I really don’t want to write this letter, but my country’s Supreme Court has decreed that I must. Do you remember the case you once instituted against Asif Ali Zardari and Benazir Bhutto? You found them guilty but then dropped the charges.

“Well, one of them is still alive, so would you mind reopening the case? As the head of state, he enjoys immunity. Would you be kind enough to overlook that minor point?

“And if for some reason you can’t, could you possibly intimate that to Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry “Gratefully yours, “The Prime Minister of Pakistan, The Presidency, Islamabad.”

It is wisely assumed that Raja Pervez will in due course be called upon to take over Gilani’s letter-writing obligations. What then? How many prime ministers can you fit into a slot of eight months or so, until the next election? Why would you bother amid a multifaceted national crisis that extends from the near-absence of electricity and a tanking economy to almost untenable relations with Uncle Sam, which offers the hand of friendship even as it keeps on pushing the buttons of belligerence?

Iftikhar Chaudhry seemed like a breath of fresh air at a time when an independent judiciary was a novel concept for Pakistan. The Supreme Court under him has taken some creditable actions.

There is a place for judicial activism in almost every country, particularly one in which the rule of law has all too often been conspicuous by its absence. But the rule of law does not mean rule by the Supreme Court, which has no right to be a substitute for parliament.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (13) Closed

WBShah Jun 27, 2012 08:37am
Now this is what I have been trying to convey to the people around. CJ and his beloved SC needs to focus on greater issues. Although it's a win win situation for both SC and PPP (SC successfully ripped the premier off his office and the premier was able to protect his master's seat ) BUT this is something that the SC has to get over with. Power shortages caused due to the circular debts need to be resolved and by far SC hasn't taken any stance on it. Protect the common man for crying out loud.
Naseer Rizvi Jun 27, 2012 02:55pm
If our president is corrupt, we should try him here in Pakistan. It is insulting to ask a foreign government to punish our sitting president.
nazar m chohan Jun 27, 2012 03:49pm
Mahir has written a good letter..wish Raja Rental copies it and send it...i remember from school days mahir's comprehension was too good...
hussein Jun 27, 2012 02:44pm
letter writing is an art which it seems the rulers have not been taught in schools. first chief justice should send them to schools with all their goodies and designer suits.
Imran K. Jun 29, 2012 04:49pm
Kudos to Dawn for publishing this excellent article, esp the'letter' part, which would have been hilarious if it weren't true.
Uza Syed Jun 27, 2012 08:47am
"the rule of law does not mean rule by the Supreme Court, which has no right to be a substitute for parliament." ---- can you, Mahir Sahib, please say this in a language which these wisemen on the hill can understand and ease our pain?
observer Jun 27, 2012 09:35am
Pakistan always needed independent judiciary. It still does. What we have is a bunch of judges who are trying to restore the lost credibility of their institution by challenging whatever the present government does. It is true that this government has flouted many of Supreme Court orders because the PPP government somehow believes that it enjoys support of the ultimate court (the Pakistani people). But most of orders of present Supreme Court are clearly not aimed at improving Pakistan. These are aimed around personal or institution's ego and around victimizing a particular political party and in this process helping their opponents in political terms. Does it all go back to the time when the judges were restored just before activists of opposition parties were about to take out present rulers from their palaces and tear them to pieces? Apparently it does.
afiasalam Jun 27, 2012 11:23am
These are growing up pains... remember... age of 'independent judiciary' is even shorter than that of democracy in this country!
J.S.Hussain Jun 27, 2012 05:23pm
I most humbly agree with Mr. Sohail Osman's question:"...if the Supreme Court can remove a Prime Minister, on its own, then why can't it write to the Swiss Authorities?"
NASAH (USA) Jun 27, 2012 12:05pm
What could be a clearer column on the 'dying' art of letter writing than this column of Mahir Ali -- for the lack of which a functioning prime minister was sent home to practice the art in all his spare time -- by an angry head master -- with no supervision by the superintendent of the schools - the parliament.
Murtaza Jun 27, 2012 01:42pm
I would like to remind you the one ruling of sane honourable retired judge. Judge (R) Mr Nasir Aslam Zahid, most probably he was chief chief justice of Sindh High Court he passed the order that every Autorickshaw must have silencer to avoid the noice pollution, for that he gave the date for the implementation of his ruling. That date was passed and his judgement was not implemented accordingly by the then government. Meanwhile during that period rickshaw driver called the strikes and removed there autorickshaw from the road and the other transporter supported their strike as well. The honourable judge issued the notices to the government most probably it was contempt of court notice. The DIG/IG Police appeared and gave statement that because of law and order circumstances govt has not implemented the court order. On government narration or calrification, court did not pro·nounced or stressed and discharged the case. But now judges are emphazing one political agenda.
Abdul j Sheikh Jun 27, 2012 05:47am
Why Don't C. J. himself write a letter to Swiss authorities; he can use his suo moto power or he can ask the Parliament to promulgate law so that president 's trial can be held in Pakistan.
sohail osman ali Jun 27, 2012 12:53pm
If the constitution gives the President immunity from criminal proceedings while in office, no one has explained why then has the Supreme Court insisted that the letter be written by the Prime Minister to the Swiss Authorities. Surely corruption is a criminal matter. I was under the impression that the Prime Minister can be removed by the National Assembly through a vote of no confidence, or by the Election Commission disqualifying him. No one has exploained why the Supreme Court did not send the matter to the Election Commission when the Speaker did not do so. If the Supreme Court can remove a Prime Minister on its own, then why can't it write to the Swiss Authorities.