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A contemptuous day in the Supreme Court

Published Jul 18, 2012 04:15pm


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“I will have you arrested for contempt,” former Chief Justice Honourable Mohammad Afzal Zullah warned me angrily. “Don’t you forget that I am the Chief Justice not only in the Court, but outside as well.”

While surrounded by the Islamabad’s elite, mostly women, at a hotel on March 2, 1993, the honourable Chief Justice became irate when I asked him if the Contempt of Court conformed with the Islamic principles of equity and accountability.

While Justice Zullah and I deliberated, I could sense multiple hands pulling me away from him. I turned around and saw my journalist colleagues, Khawar Azhar of The Observer and Rukhsana Aslam of The News, dragging me away to safety. Quickly they arranged to have me smuggled out of the hotel.

Why would the Chief Justice be so infuriated by a question about the relevancy of the very concept of contempt? As a reporter for The Frontier Post, I posed a question that had merit given what the entire nation was fixated on since late February in 1993.

"Mr. Justice is there room for contempt-of-court in Islam?" I asked with utmost respect and narrated the story about the second Caliph, Hazrat Umar Farooq (RA), who was also the grand Mufti (jurist) of his time. A Bedouin asked the Caliph if he had abused his authority by taking more from the exchequer than his due share. Instead of ordering the Bedouin’s arrest, the Caliph explained how his son gave up his share so that the Caliph could have a dress made from the cloth that was shared amongst all. After narrating the story I humbly asked Justice Zullah if the Bedouin committed contempt-of-court. Justice Zullah angrily responded that he would answer my question once I was locked up behind bars.

This was not my first face-to-face of the day with the Chief Justice. In fact, the same morning I pleaded a case in front of the full bench of the Supreme Court, which was headed by Justice Zullah. The Supreme Court, which was then located in Rawalpindi, was not my beat.  A series of events in the past 24 hours brought me to the Court and later in front of the bench.

The story in fact begins in February 1993 when the Supreme Court issued a contempt notice to the former Chief of Army Staff, General Mirza Aslam Beg who was accused of trying to influence the Supreme Court in October 1988. The General, while addressing journalists at the Lahore Press Club on February 4, 1993, revealed that in 1988 he had advised the Supreme Court not to restore the deposed government of Prime Minister Mohammad Khan Junejo and instead urged the Court to allow the general elections to take place.

General Beg’s trial started with fireworks with the retired General and Justice Zullah ended up in several confrontational exchanges. At one point Justice Zullah prevented General Beg from leaving the Court. "We command you to stay here, you can't withdraw," warned Justice Zullah who had already accused the General of “talking too much” and being “so careless.”

However, within weeks the mood changed at the Supreme Court when General Beg’s lawyer, Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim (Pakistan’s current Chief Election Commissioner) argued before the court that the General did not intend to bring the Supreme Court into hatred and ridicule and that he had advised the Supreme Court because he believed holding the elections would be "in the best interest of the nation."

While the Supreme Court was in session on March 1, 1993, Shahid Orakzai, my colleague at The Frontier Post, disrupted the Court proceedings. Orakzai became angry when he felt that General Beg tried to accuse the Press of misquoting him in February. When Shahid Orakzai refused to observe the Court’s decorum, the Court sentenced him to three months in prison or “until he purges himself of the contempt.” Also accused of contempt was a freelance journalist Khawar Mehdi.

Because Frontier Post’s court reporter also feared arrest, the editor dispatched me to the Supreme Court on March 2. As I arrived at the Supreme Court in the morning, the court was not in session while the journalists congregated in the cafeteria.  Suddenly we heard that the Police had arrested Khawar Mehdi and he was being questioned on camera by the Supreme Court. A few minutes later, the Registrar of the Supreme Court arrived at the cafeteria and inquired about me. He revealed that Khawar Mehdi had refused to cooperate with the Court until I and another journalist were in the courtroom with him.

I was surprised to see my name called for two reasons. First, this was my first ever visit to the Supreme Court and I had no plans to become part of the story. Second, Khawar Mehdi was merely an acquaintance and his decision to call me for help was rather surprising. Once the Registrar ensured senior journalists that this was not a ploy to arrest me and the other journalist, we joined Khawar Mehdi in the courtroom.

As I walked into the courtroom I remember seeing Khawar Mehdi standing alone in front of the judges.  It was a large but poorly lit room where the honourable judges, clad in their robes, sat in large wooden chairs behind a very huge and impressive desk. I stood next to Khawar and was rather perplexed at the course of events.

"Why should not we hold you in contempt?" asked Justice Saleemuz Zaman Siddiqui. Khawar had nothing to say in reply.  He perhaps was not even aware of the gravity of the situation.  He looked defiant. I thought it would be foolish of him to be gallant.  I wanted to pre-empt him from making a foolish mistake. After all it was a struggle between the military and the judiciary and Khawar Mehdi was about to become collateral damage. Before Khawar could answer the Court, I stepped forward and requested the judges to give me an opportunity to consult with him.  The Justices graciously granted my request and adjourned for 15 minutes

I pleaded with Khawar not to be a fool and tender an apology to the Court for his behaviour. He flatly refused. It took some convincing before he agreed to stay silent and let me address the Court on his behalf. When the Court resumed I pleaded that Khawar did not intend to disrespect the court and that he earnestly believed that justice would not have been served had General Beg been absolved of the contempt charges. I further added that Khawar was an ordinary, but a patriotic citizen, who felt marginalised and vented his frustration in the Court and that he was sorry for not observing the decorum in the Court.

My apology on Khawar’s behalf was not sufficient for the honourable judges.  They had to hear him apologise and so they ordered.  Khawar whispered he was sorry. "Please say it aloud," ordered Justice Naseem Hassan Shah. "I'm sorry," said Khawar, "for I'm not a general or a tycoon," and broke into tears. "What did he say?" inquired Justice Zullah.  Before the judges could really contemplate what Khawar had actually said, I stepped forward and pleaded that Khawar repented his actions and he held the Court in the highest regard. "Please notice that Mr. Mehdi is showing his remorse by crying," Justice Zullah advised brother judges. The Supreme Court freed Khawar with a warning.

I immediately took Khawar Mehdi to the Rawalpindi Press Club where Shahid Orakzai and other journalists had arrived. Police had warrants to arrest Shahid Orakzai. Other senior journalists present at the Press Club suggested that Shahid should volunteer arrest, which he did.

I thought I had enough for the day. I was wrong. While Shahid was being taken under custody, the Superintendent of Police Bani Amin, who is the current Inspector General of Police in Islamabad, offered me to accompany Shahid Orakzai to the lockup to ensure that he was not mistreated by the Police. I stayed with Shahid Orakzai in the lock-up until he was transferred to the Adiala Prison later in the evening.

From the police lock-up I returned to The Frontier Post’s Bureau in Islamabad where I learnt that the Chief Justice was attending a reception at a nearby hotel. I went to the hotel and met with the Chief Justice where he threatened me with arrest.

Years later I often wonder if it would have been better for the Court to know what Khawar Mehdi apologised for. He was sorry for his misfortune of being a disenfranchised citizen of Pakistan who did not receive the same treatment by the highest Court in the land that a retired General received. General Beg had the privilege of being defended by the sharpest legal minds in the country. Khawar Mehdi, on the other hand, had two journalists on his side. My training as an engineer and experience as a journalist did not equip me to plead a case in front of the Supreme Court. No one in the Court told us that we should have had a lawyer present to advise us. We were ill-equipped and ill-prepared, but extremely fortunate because the Court was willing to forgive.

A couple of weeks later in March 1993 the Supreme Court found General Beg guilty of contempt, but released him with a warning. Whereas, two judges on the bench, wrote dissenting notes and argued that “a severe reprimand should be administered.” The judgement however cited “mitigating circumstances of the case” and observed that “the reprimand administered during the proceedings was sufficient.”

Decades later, the same power struggle between the judiciary, executive and military continues in Pakistan. This time around the Court is not in a forgiving mood.

Murtaza Haider, Ph.D. is the Associate Dean of research and graduate programs at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University in Toronto. He can be reached by email at

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.


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Murtaza Haider is a Toronto-based academic and the director of

He tweets @regionomics

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

Comments (18) Closed

mahmood ahmad Jul 18, 2012 01:26pm
the very people who s duty is to get the ordes of the court implemented are defy ing the orders that too on the pretext of strengthening the legislature.
SHERYAAR Jul 19, 2012 10:05am
ahmad butt Jul 18, 2012 12:55pm
Starting off with "The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group" the disclaimer indemnity just about brought a smile, im sure the supreme court would not dig out old enmities and our current chief justice imparts his duties as he is meant to. As of recent, I saw the PEMRA chief on television being adequately questioned on why he is in negligence of his duties and i was impressed by the CJP Mr.Choudhry on his handling the situation, not lashing out saying that PEMRA's big chief is wrong but quoting section of the law for reference. God forbid, I believe some high profile cases should be given public access via media. The problem with our other institutions is brandishing their authority and raw display of power, and all of them are sticking their guns on being patriotic. Couple that with ego and fear of being labelled as incompetent and you have all the right recipe for a war of words. This tussle is indeed unfortunate, and I wonder what will happen if the army chief is summoned by the CJP and told on the FC performance on Baluchistan and other issues. I wonder if the army chief is able to handle criticism, especially if he is not directly responsible to maneuver his FC subordinates.
Wasif Jul 18, 2012 02:46pm
The question remains unanswered: "Is there room for contempt-of-court in Islam?”
AHK Jul 19, 2012 10:29am
The contempt of court by the previous PM was totally different. It was defiance of the orders of the court, which is not the same as the reference to Umar (radhi Allaho anh). Not carrying out orders has parallels in Islam, and the punishments are as severe as they should be.
Zero Jul 19, 2012 12:12pm
Yes .. disobeying a court's orders is punishable upon a judge's discretion. More here (Hope DAWN allows the URL):
Ajaya K Dutt Jul 18, 2012 10:31pm
I respect your intellect, demeanor, perseverance and integrity. I and some of my friends at IIT Delhi in late 70’s wanted to make a change, but then decided to change ourselves. Pakistan is blessed to have you. India is blessed to have many who are making India what it is and shall be.
Arslan Jul 18, 2012 11:06pm
very interesting piece.
@dodgy_helmet Jul 19, 2012 04:06am
The Pakistani public is not in a forgiving mood this time around either, be warned o'Holy saviours of democracy, you cannot hide behind that garb anymore
shankar Jul 19, 2012 04:13am
Contempt of court is definitely a tool that should be used to so that the law of the land is respected and executed and to ensue justice prevails. It can also used to serve one's own ego at the expense of other institutions.
Sadruddin Mitha Jul 19, 2012 04:18am
It is indeed a sheer good luck for Pakistan that Judiciary is functioning otherwise, this corrupt government has made every institution dysfunctional so that loot and plunder can not be accounted for. thanks heavens, there is some authority that can make a Prime Minister exit within minutes and recover billions given away as gift by Raja Rental to rental power companies. If not for the apex court, Pakistan today would have been in serious troubles I am using very soft language, it could have damaged its very own existence, has apex court not acted in time and saved the country. as for Khakhis it looks they are mingling with civilians and are now on cordial terms and they do not find anything wrong even when their army men are butchered inside Paksitan and a word sorry is acceptable to them in return for dollars which they were waiting for over a year as reimbursement for the job performed for US
Abdul Waheed Jul 19, 2012 04:25am
In countries of Europe and America, Contempt law is rarely used but in our country especially presently, contempt law is being used excessively. It is not a good situation and disgracing judiciary itself.
ckcd Jul 19, 2012 05:13am
all institutions should work in the interest of the nation
umar Jul 19, 2012 05:14am
I am sorry you are trying to draw parallels between two very different incidents and circumstances. Questioning someone and ridiculing the same are two very different things. That aside the contempt of court law being exercised in the circumstances is neither for questioning or ridiculing the court rather di-regarding the ruling/judgement of the court by the very people who are duty bound to implement it. That said, I don't think the courts or anyone else should be above the law and/or have absolute power and in the same vein the President and Prime minister should not have any immunity from prosecution.
umar Jul 19, 2012 05:18am
I am sorry you are trying to draw parallels between two very different incidents and circumstances. Questioning someone and ridiculing the same are two very different things. That aside the contempt of court law being exercised in the circumstances is neither for questioning or ridiculing the court rather di-regarding the ruling/judgement of the court by the very people who are duty bound to implement it.
Zero Jul 19, 2012 09:03am
Neither Pakistan is Khilafah, nor the writer is a bedouin and nor our judges khalifahs. You made a selective and sarcastic argument in at a private dinner with the judge, which if made today, would be hijacked by TTP to impose Shariah.
Iftikhar Husain Jul 20, 2012 11:54am
The blogger has put interesting facts and the comment to follow are very positive the situation now is different than fourteen hundred years ago.
Masood Hussain Jul 23, 2012 08:56pm
Thank you very much Mr.Haider for your very timely historical narration of few of incidences in "Contempt of court cases'. It is more of ego and Self righteousness andAssrtion of authoritythan contempt Hon'le judges some time fail to realize that the accused and advocte standing in front are also equally honourable and learned. recently we heard one of the Hpn'ble judges of apex court saying that he was not going to forgive the contemptee lawer in any case even if he was forgiven by other judges.