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Too soon

December 07, 2012

THE one-man Suddle commission has established that Arsalan Iftikhar, the son of the chief justice of Pakistan, received favours from a controversial property magnate with complex political and business relationships — and after reaching that preliminary finding, the commission has simply been wrapped up by the Supreme Court. That is, quite simply, extraordinary.Transparency demands that at the very least a larger commission be set up, the new commission be given a wide-ranging mandate and powers, and a serious effort be made to establish who did what and, perhaps most crucially, why. A behind-the-scenes powerbroker like Malik Riaz is unlikely to lavish foreign trips and other goodies on a scion of a top judge just as a means of establishing good relations. Even if Mr Riaz was testing the waters as opposed to actually having a deal in hand, what led him to believe that partially financing Arsalan Iftikhar’s lavish lifestyle was an investment worth making? As for Arsalan Iftikhar, could the Malik Riaz connection be just the tip of a dirty iceberg in which other powerful business and political interests also coddled the scion of the chief justice in the hope — or false promise — of favourable treatment by the superior judiciary? The citizenry of Pakistan, which has reposed such trust in the superior judiciary as a born-again institution of principle, deserves to know the truth.

The unhappy, larger truth here is that the tawdry Arsalan Iftikhar-Malik Riaz episode cannot be assumed to be an isolated set of circumstances. Fear of the gavel being brought crashing down ensures that even the most serious of allegations remain only whispered and rarely aired in public. Almost certainly, given the suspicion and mistrust between the government and the court, there is no chance for a full, proper and fair inquiry into potential wrongdoing in judicial circles. To expect the judiciary to open itself to such scrutiny by a critical, if not hostile, government is perhaps unrealistic. But the Suddle commission has established enough facts to warrant a new high powered commission to probe existing allegations, and new ones that may arise if such a commission were to seriously solicit input from the public.

What may be necessary too is to investigate the nexus between politics and big business in Pakistan. How and why does an individual like Malik Riaz command such influence? Are those links the unavoidable cost of a nascent democracy with weak institutions? Much seems inevitable until an unexpected crossroads arrives and reforms are forced through by circumstance. Pakistan can do with fewer individuals operating in the shadows of the state.