Mixed legacy for Pakistan’s flamboyant chief justice

Retired Chief Justice of Pakistan Mian Saqib Nisar (left), talking with a group of women in Peshawar in May 2018. (Reuters/File)
Updated 19 January 2019

Mixed legacy for Pakistan’s flamboyant chief justice

  • Outgoing top judge criticized for failing to undertake judicial reforms
  • Supporters see him as champion for rights of ordinary Pakistanis

ISLAMABAD: Over a two-year stint, Pakistan’s outgoing Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar has come to be seen as a hero for banning a three-time prime minister from politics for life over corruption charges, hauling a once-untouchable land tycoon before his court for land-grabbing and acquitting a poor Christian woman, on death row for eight years, in a landmark blasphemy case.

But his critics say Nisar’s high-octane brand of judicial activism has distracted him from his real job: reforming the country’s crisis-ridden, corrupt lower courts where almost two million cases are pending.

As he retired this week, the outgoing judge’s failures, as well as the larger problems of a sclerotic legal system, are all too obvious.

Chief among them is the singular failure to deliver on judicial reforms and address the structural weaknesses, corruption and delays that have long been a hallmark of Pakistan’s shambolic court system. Instead, Nisar used “suo motu” provisions in Pakistani law to open cases on his own initiative and passed orders on a dizzying range of public issues like water supplies, private school fees, the logo of the national airline and taxes on mobile phone plans.

“Nisar opted for populism and activism rather than reform, which has done lasting damage to law and politics in Pakistan,” legal commentator Babar Sattar said. “He wasn’t driven by judicial reform at all; he came in without any plan for much needed corrections in the system.”

Instead, Nisar largely focused his prosecutorial energies on lambasting the executive and meddling in issues usually considered the domain of government policy-making. In throwaway remarks in case after case, he lashed out at the then government of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, publicly chastising it for its inefficiency and corruption, and thunderously upbraiding senior ministers and bureaucrats on a daily basis, leading to what many officials describe as the paralysis of public-sector functioning. In actions considered deeply unbecoming of the country’s top judge, he routinely raided hospitals and prisons followed by television crews who delighted in the public humiliation he unleashed on officials. And while he fast-tracked corruption proceedings against members of the ruling party, in contrast he seemed to be more indulgent toward opposition politicians, leaving cases against them to gather dust or delivering favourable verdicts.

In 2017, Nisar made his boldest move yet by barring prime minister Nawaz Sharif, one of Pakistan’s most high-profile politicians, from holding public office for life in the outcome of a long-drawn out investigation into revelations that Sharif and his family had used offshore accounts to buy upmarket London flats.

These series of events, in the run up to a major general election, created the impression that the judiciary might once more be cutting certain politicians down to size to serve the interests of Pakistan’s all-powerful military.

For decades, malleable judges have rubber-stamped military coups in Pakistan, using what has come to be called the “doctrine of necessity” to legitimize the unconstitutional actions of dictators. But the refusal by then chief justice Iftikhar Muhammed Chaudhry to step down after he was fired by General Pervez Musharraf in 2007 unleashed a protest movement that led to Musharraf resigning as president of the country and transformed the image of the judiciary as the handmaiden of military rulers.

But under Nisar, Sattar argued, the perception that the judiciary was acting for and as an extension of the military establishment had once again resurfaced.

“The biggest disappointment of his term is that we are back to asking the question: is the judiciary in bed with the army again?” Sattar said.

For all populist grandstanding, there were some cases that the outgoing chief justice simply did not address, including a case accusing a powerful spy agency of rigging the 1990 general election by distributing millions of dollars to political parties, and hundreds of cases involving missing persons allegedly kidnapped and tortured by security agencies.

Where Nisar has focused his judicial energies has sometimes bordered on the bizarre. One of his most quixotic projects will certainly be his crowdfund drive to collect almost $17 billion from citizens, officials, businesses and celebrities to build two massive dams. Daily press releases from the Supreme Court announce different individuals and institutions, many with cases pending in court, meeting the chief justice to donate to his funds, raising suspicions they might be trying to buy influence. In one case, Nisar ordered a litigant to pay Rs.1 million into the dam fund to have his request for an adjournment granted and in another, disposed off a high-profile medical colleges case after the institutions deposited nearly Rs.17 million into the fund. Legal experts are near unanimously agreed that these action constitute misconduct.

In a recent suo motu case regarding the use of water resources by mineral water companies, Nisar ordered that a one rupee per litre tax be imposed on companies selling bottled water in a move that many observers say is a usurpation of the executive’s powers. What made the order even more legally suspect was the addendum that the tax collected go into the dam fund.

“The legacy of retired chief justice Saqib Nisar … can be encapsulated in one phrase: judicial overreach,” Pakistan’s leading Dawn newspaper wrote in an editorial on Friday, commenting on the judge’s eagerness to rewrite the rules.

But it is this very eagerness that has also has won Nisar support among ordinary Pakistanis who feel let down by self-serving political elites and see the judiciary as the only realistic hope of solving their problems.

“Saqib Nisar has set a precedent where on matters of public welfare, whether its population control or water scarcity, the Supreme Court has dared to intervene and intervened forcibly,” political analyst Muhammad Malick said. “We can endlessly debate whether the court should or should not do this but in a country where institutions don’t work, the common person needs relief and he or she doesn’t care if it comes from a judge or a politician."


Fearing torture, ex-PM Khan's aide files petition for medical examination

Updated 29 January 2023

Fearing torture, ex-PM Khan's aide files petition for medical examination

  • Chaudhry Fawad Hussain urges court to take notice of violation of his constitutional rights
  • Hussain was arrested last week on charges of threatening members of Pakistan's election regulator

ISLAMABAD: Former prime minister Imran Khan's aide, Chaudhry Fawad Hussain, on Sunday submitted a plea before an Islamabad judicial magistrate for his medical examination to be conducted, fearing he may be subjected to torture in police custody.

Hussain, who served as information minister in former PM Khan's cabinet, was arrested on Wednesday from Lahore and brought to Islamabad. A sedition case was registered against Hussain after a case was registered against him by the Election Commission of Pakistan's (ECP) secretary, who said Hussain had threatened members of the commission and their families. 

On Saturday, an Islamabad local court remanded Hussain for two days in police custody. Hussain and Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party have denied allegations he threatened ECP's members. The party and its chairman have repeatedly raised concerns Hussain's constitutional rights are being violated by authorities. 

“It is feared that the applicant may be subjected to mental and physical torture,” Hussain's petition read. “It is important to conduct the medical examination of the applicant to protect his legal and constitutional rights," it added. 

The petition said police were not conducting Hussain's medical examination which was against the court's directives, adding that they were also in violation of his constitutional rights. 

The petition alleged that Islamabad police had subjected two PTI senior leaders, Senator Azam Swati and Dr. Shahbaz Gill, to torture during custody. Islamabad police has rejected the allegations.  “The police might do the same as they did in the past, and this is why they are not conducting my medical,” the petition said. 

It also requested the court to direct police “to immediately conduct the applicant’s medical examination and submit a report in the court.” 

The former information minister is scheduled to be produced before the judicial magistrate in Islamabad tomorrow, Monday, after the expiry of his two-day physical remand. The investigators argued before the court that they wanted to have a photogrammetry test of the accused conducted. They also demanded his laptop and cell phone be recovered for forensic analysis. 


Central bank rejects claim capping dollar price caused $3 billion losses in exports, remittances

Updated 29 January 2023

Central bank rejects claim capping dollar price caused $3 billion losses in exports, remittances

  • State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) says rising inflation, global economic slowdown behind dwindling remittances, exports
  • SBP says devastating floods last year and ensuing supply disruptions also contributed to decline in Pakistan's exports

ISLAMABAD: The State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) on Sunday rejected media reports which stated that capping the price of the US dollar caused the country losses worth $3 billion in exports and remittances, saying that a decline in both was due to "exogenous factors."

In a major sign that it was willing to swallow the bitter pill and agree to the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) tough conditionalities, Pakistan's foreign exchange companies last week removed the cap on the US dollar. The price of the rupee, as a result, fell to a 24-year-low against the greenback, compounding problems for the South Asian country. 

Local media reports had claimed that capping the price of the US dollar had dealt Pakistan losses of $3 billion in exports and remittances as people preferred to send remittances to Pakistan via illegal channels, which offered a better rate. 

In a press release, the SBP rejected the reports, describing them as "incorrect." It added that Pakistan's exports were facing headwinds due to moderating demand in international markets as the country's trading partners go through a period of monetary tightening. 

"For instance, US Federal Funds rate has surged from 0.25 percent in March 2022 to 4.5 percent to date; suggesting a noticeable global monetary tightening," the SBP said. 

The central bank said inflation has been "significantly higher" in developed countries, eroding people's purchasing power. The SBP also said that devastating floods last year and ensuing supply disruptions are also to blame for Pakistan's dwindling exports. 

"In this backdrop, linking decline in exports to relatively stable exchange rate is not appropriate," it added. 

It said workers' remittances were gradually "tapering off" from the all-time high figure of $3.1 billion in April 2022 due to Eid-related flows.  

"This decline is primarily attributed to global economic slowdown as higher inflation in developed countries has led to higher cost of living abroad, thus reducing the surplus funds that could be sent back to homeland as remittances," the central bank added.

Pakistan's foreign reserves have dipped to an alarming eight-year low of $3.6 billion, barely enough to cover three weeks of imports. Islamabad hopes the resumption of the IMF's stalled loan program would help unlock inflows from allies and multilateral organizations.


Pakistan’s president, PM express sorrow after 50 die in twin transport mishaps

Updated 29 January 2023

Pakistan’s president, PM express sorrow after 50 die in twin transport mishaps

  • A passenger bus fell into a ravine and caught fire in Balochistan's Bela area, killing at least 40 people
  • In second mishap, 10 children were killed after their ferry capsized in country's northwest on Sunday

KARACHI: Pakistan's President Dr. Arif Alvi and Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif in separate statements on Sunday expressed “deep grief and sorrow” over two transport tragedies that left at least 50 people dead and renewed the debate about transport safety protocols in the South Asian country.

In the first incident, a passenger bus fell into a ravine and later caught fire in the Bela area of Pakistan's southwestern Balochistan province, where road accidents claim thousands of lives annually.  At least 40 people were killed in the accident. 

In another incident, 10 children, aged between seven to 14 years, died when their boat capsized in Tanda Dam lake near Kohat in the country's northwest, according to police.  The boat was carrying between 25 and 30 students on a day trip from a local madrassa when it overturned.

“The president has stressed authorities take practical steps to avert the occurrence of such incidents in the future,” the state-owned Associated Press of Pakistan (APP) reported, citing a statement from the president’s secretariat said.

“The prime minister has directed [authorities concerned] to ensure the provision of all available medical facilities to the injured,” the Prime Minister’s House said in a statement according to the APP. 

Balochistan, a mountainous, desert region bordering Afghanistan and Iran, is Pakistan’s largest but most impoverished province, with a staggering 40,000-kilometer network of road infrastructure.  

According to the Motorway police, 6,000 to 8,000 people die each year in accidents across the Balochistan province, mainly on single-lane roads that have infamously come to be known as "killer highways."  

“A bus going from Quetta to Karachi plunged into a ravine and caught fire at around 3 am,” Hamza Anjum Nadeem, the Bela assistant commissioner, told Arab News. "At least 39 bodies have been recovered and search for others is underway."  

Anjum later confirmed the death of another passenger, taking the count to 40.

Of these, 38 dead bodies were being moved to the southern port city of Karachi, 177 kilometers away from Bela, for medico-legal formalities, Karachi Police Surgeon Dr. Summaiya Syed told Arab News.

Balochistan is the epicenter of the $64 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a road and infrastructure development plan, which aims to ultimately provide the shortest route for Chinese cargo headed for the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia.  

Major roads are slated for construction under the CPEC, including the road from Balochistan’s Khuzdar district to the Chinese-funded, deepwater port of Gwadar. But for now, the absence of dual carriageways, inadequate training of drivers, and a lack of highway patrol mean thousands continue to die on these roads each year.  

Like road accidents, mass drownings are also common in Pakistan when aged and overloaded vessels lose their stability and pitch passengers into the water.

In July, 18 women drowned when an overcrowded boat carrying a wedding party across the Indus river in Punjab province capsized.

The South Asian country also has poor road safety controls and thousands of lives are lost to road crashes each year, particularly in the southwestern Balochistan province.

According to the National Road Safety Strategy 2018-2030, a report administered by the Asian Development Bank that cited police data, 6,548 people died at the scene of an accident on Pakistan’s roads in 2016. Of these, 355 fatalities happened on national highways and 6,003 on provincial roads.  

At least seven people were killed, and 15 others were injured after a passenger bus collided with a truck in Balochistan's Killa Saifullah district this month.    

In June last year, 22 people were killed when a passenger bus veered off a narrow road and fell into a ravine in the same district.


PM calls for 'global unity' to fight Islamophobia after desecration of Holy Quran in Denmark

Updated 29 January 2023

PM calls for 'global unity' to fight Islamophobia after desecration of Holy Quran in Denmark

  • Danish far-right politician torched a copy of the Holy Quran on Friday near a Copenhagen mosque
  • PM Shehbaz Sharif says desecration of Holy Quran 'highly offensive' act, calls on world to denounce it

ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif called for "global unity" to fight Islamophobia on Sunday amid increasing incidents of the desecration of the Holy Quran in Denmark and Sweden last week. 

The prime minister's comments came after a far-right Danish politician torched a copy of the Holy Quran on Friday near a mosque and outside the premises of the Turkish embassy in Copenhagen. 

Rasmus Paludan, known for his extremist stance towards Muslims, pulled a similar stunt in Stockholm last week. Paludan said he would repeat the act every Friday until Sweden is included in the NATO alliance. Turkey, whose support is crucial for Denmark to join the military alliance, has spoken out against Copenhagen's bid to join NATO. 

Paludan's Islamophobic acts have triggered anger among the Muslim community worldwide and evoked strong condemnations from Pakistan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other Muslim countries around the world. 

In a Twitter post, Pakistan's prime minister condemned the "highly offensive" incident, calling on the civilized world to denounce it as well

 

 

"The need for global unity to fight Islamophobia couldn't be more urgent than it is now. We are deeply hurt," he wrote on Twitter. 

Pakistan's foreign office on Saturday issued a strong statement against Paludan's act, describing it as "a senseless and deeply offensive" action. 

"This repetition of the vile act leaves little doubt in the minds of Muslims around the world that freedom of expression is being blatantly abused to spread religious hatred and incitement to violence," it had said. 


Pakistan has to abide by tough IMF conditions out of ‘compulsion’ — defense minister

Updated 29 January 2023

Pakistan has to abide by tough IMF conditions out of ‘compulsion’ — defense minister

  • IMF wants Pakistan to reestablish market-based mechanism to determine Pakistani rupee's value
  • Defense Minister Khawaja Asif says government would try not to burden citizens under IMF’s conditions

ISLAMABAD: As Pakistan increased petrol prices by Rs35 per liter, Defense Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif said on Sunday that the country had to agree to “very tough” conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) out of “compulsion” to address its economic woes.

The IMF’s mission is scheduled to visit Pakistan on January 31 to discuss the resumption of its $7 billion loan program, as Islamabad desperately seeks another loan tranche to shore up its foreign exchange reserves. Pakistan's forex reserves have declined to a staggering $3.6 billion, not even enough to cover a month of imports.

Earlier today, Finance Minister Ishaq Dar announced jacking up prices of petroleum products in the country by as much as Rs35 per liter. The minister said the decision was taken due to the Pakistani rupee's recent devaluation and up to an 11 percent increase in global fuel prices.

The hike in prices of petroleum products is part of the IMF's conditionalities to revive the stalled loan program, which requires Pakistan to do away with expensive energy subsidies. The price hike is expected to further increase decades-high inflation in the South Asian country. 

The global lender also wants Pakistan to reestablish a market-based mechanism to determine the value of the Pakistani rupee, which fell to a record low of 269.60 against the dollar in the open market this week. Such a mechanism is a key prior action for the country to receive IMF support.

“The IMF program, which we had to re-enter because of the [current] circumstances and out of compulsion, has set very strict and tough conditions for Pakistan,” Asif said on Sunday, speaking to reporters.

He added the government would undertake efforts to ensure the common man would not have to bear the economic burden of IMF’s conditions.

“We will try that only those belonging to the [upper] socioeconomic class will have to bear the economic burden of this crisis,” he said.

Answering a question related to the acute dearth of forex reserves in the country and the ensuing depreciation of the rupee against the dollar, the defense minister said people who have a foreign currency account in the country would still be able to withdraw “some” of their money in dollars.

“If someone here has a dollar account and wants to withdraw money from their banks, they can do so but in small amounts. For instance, if someone wants to take out money to pay for their children’s school fees, they can do so,” he clarified.

Asif also said the country’s imports, which had to be halted due to the dwindling reserves, were “gradually being relaxed.”

“Our exports are gradually being relaxed, so we will hopefully recover from the economic [turmoil] soon,” he said. “Slowly and gradually, things are being streamlined.”

Pakistan secured a $6 billion IMF bailout in 2019, which was topped up with another $1 billion last year. However, the lender then stalled disbursements in November due to Pakistan’s failure to make more progress on fiscal consolidation and economic reforms.