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
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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."


Saudi ambassador honors Pakistani policewoman for heroic rescue, offers royal invitation to kingdom

Updated 01 March 2024
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Saudi ambassador honors Pakistani policewoman for heroic rescue, offers royal invitation to kingdom

  • ASP Shehrbano Naqvi safely extracted a woman from an enraged blasphemy mob in Lahore last month
  • She received widespread acclaim from the general public and was also praised by Pakistan’s army chief

ISLAMABAD: The Saudi ambassador to Pakistan, Nawaf bin Saeed Al-Malki, praised a female Pakistani police officer for her timely intervention that saved a woman surrounded by an enraged blasphemy mob in the eastern city of Lahore, extending a royal invitation to her for a visit to the kingdom.
Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) Shehrbano Naqvi received widespread acclaim from politicians, officials and the general public after a social media video showed her rescuing a woman wearing a dress with Arabic inscriptions, which some people mistook for verses from the Holy Qur’an.
Naqvi, who safely extracted the woman from the crowd, later clarified that the dress bore no sacred inscriptions, featuring only the Arabic word “halwa.”
According to the Associated Press of Pakistan (APP) news agency, during a meeting at the embassy, the Saudi envoy commended Naqvi’s selfless devotion that defused the volatile situation.
He also extended an invitation to her to visit the kingdom.
“The Saudi Ambassador to Pakistan praised the bravery of the police officer and assured her that the Saudi government would cover the expenses of her and her family’s trip to Saudi Arabia as honored guests,” reported the APP.
Independent Urdu, quoting an embassy spokesperson, revealed that Naqvi, along with her family, would be visiting Riyadh as royal guests before performing Hajj.
Prior to her meeting with the Saudi diplomat, Pakistan’s army chief General Asim Munir also invited Naqvi to his office to commend her dedication.
In the past, blasphemy charges have triggered mob lynchings in the country, with politicians assassinated, lawyers murdered and students killed over unverified accusations.


Pakistan’s former interior minister, Mir Sarfraz Bugti, elected unopposed as Balochistan’s chief minister

Updated 01 March 2024
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Pakistan’s former interior minister, Mir Sarfraz Bugti, elected unopposed as Balochistan’s chief minister

  • Bugti took oath as a caretaker federal minister last August before resigning in December to contest the recent elections
  • He asks Baloch insurgents to cease fighting and engage in dialogue, warning that the state would not condone violence

QUETTA: Pakistan’s former caretaker interior minister Mir Sarfraz Bugti was elected as the 25th chief minister of the southwestern Balochistan province on Friday, after no other lawmaker submitted nomination papers to contest the post.
Bugti previously served as the home and tribal affairs minister of the province and remained a senator from 2015 to 2021. Last year in August, he took the oath as the country’s interim minister for interior before resigning in December to contest the recent elections.
He participated in the provincial polls after joining Asif Ali Zardari and Bilawal Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).
“I am thankful to President @AAliZardari, Chairman @BBhuttoZardari, my party @PPP_Org, and the people of #DeraBugti who allowed me to serve the people of #Balochistan,” he said in a social media post. “May Allah guide me and help me to do justice with this heavy responsibility.”
Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province by area, holds a strategic position of immense importance due to its rich mineral resources, including natural gas, coal and minerals, along with its access to the Arabian Sea through the deep-sea port of Gwadar.
The port is also a cornerstone of the multibillion-dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, making the province a pivotal player in regional connectivity and trade routes between Asia, the Middle East and beyond.
Balochistan has also experienced a low-level insurgency for decades by Baloch separatist groups who express grievances over political disenfranchisement, economic marginalization and the exploitation of the province’s rich natural resources without adequate benefit to the local population.
However, Pakistani authorities have always denied these claims.
Bugti, scheduled to take the oath at the Governor House tomorrow, asked Baloch insurgents to cease fighting the state and engage in dialogue while speaking to the media.
“The Pakistan Peoples Party believes in dialogue to resolve all political issues,” the newly elected chief minister said. “We wish all militants to skip violence and become part of the mainstream political paradigm. However, the state will not condone any kind of violence.”


Pakistan condemns Israel’s ‘policy of mass starvation’ after killing of over 100 Palestinians in Gaza

Updated 54 min 50 sec ago
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Pakistan condemns Israel’s ‘policy of mass starvation’ after killing of over 100 Palestinians in Gaza

  • Eyewitnesses say Israeli troops opened fire on a group of Palestinians waiting for life-saving aid and food delivery
  • Pakistan’s foreign office says Israel must face justice for committing crimes against Palestinians with impunity

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan on Friday condemned the killing of over 100 Palestinians who were trying to get food from an aid convoy in Gaza City a day earlier, saying the incident had highlighted Israel’s “deliberate and inhumane policy of mass starvation.”
According to eyewitnesses, Israeli troops opened fire on a crowd of Palestinians waiting for aid and food amid the rubble of their city destroyed by relentless airstrikes ordered by the Netanyahu administration last year in October.
Israel besieged the Gaza Strip after a surprise attack was initiated by Hamas in response to the deteriorating condition of Palestinian people living under Israeli occupation. The ensuing war has led to the killing of over 30,000 Palestinians, most of them women and children, as much of the world has accused the Israeli authorities of carrying out a genocide in Gaza.
International aid groups have also complained of increasing difficulties while delivering food supplies to starving Palestinians due to the Israeli military.
“Pakistan strongly condemns yesterday’s massacre by Israel’s occupation forces of unarmed Palestinians, who were awaiting life-saving aid and food delivery in Gaza,” foreign office spokesperson Mumtaz Zahra Baloch said during her weekly media briefing. “This massacre demonstrates a blatant disregard for civility and international humanitarian law and Israel’s deliberate and inhumane policy of mass starvation.”
Baloch reiterated her country’s stance for an immediate and urgent ceasefire while calling for unimpeded access of humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza.
“Israel must also face justice for its crimes against humanity being perpetrated with impunity against the Palestinian people,” she added.
The incident in Gaza has come at a time when various stakeholders in and around the region are trying to negotiate a ceasefire to end the conflict which has lasted for nearly five months.


Brothers accused of sparking blasphemy riot against Christians in Pakistan last year released

Updated 01 March 2024
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Brothers accused of sparking blasphemy riot against Christians in Pakistan last year released

  • The brothers were detained on suspicion of defacing the Holy Qur’an in Jaranwala where a mob vandalized Churches
  • Christians make up around two percent of Pakistan’s population and occupy one of the lowest rungs in society

LAHORE: Two brothers accused of blasphemous acts that sparked a mob in Pakistan to ransack homes and churches in a Christian enclave last year have been freed from jail, their lawyer said Friday.
More than 80 Christian homes and 19 churches were vandalized by crowds in the eastern city of Jaranwala last August, after accusations spread that a Holy Qur’an had been desecrated.
Blasphemy is an incendiary charge in deeply conservative, Muslim-majority Pakistan, where even unproven allegations of insulting Islam have provoked deadly vigilantism.
While police rounded up more than 125 suspected rioters, they also detained two Christian brothers on suspicion of having defaced a Holy Qur’an – a violation of Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws which can carry the death penalty.
But the brothers’ lawyer Tahir Bashir told AFP they had been freed after an anti-terror court declined to bring their case to trial on Thursday.
“Without a trial, no suspect can be detained indefinitely in jail,” Bashir said, declining to publicly name his clients out of fear for their safety.
“They are free, they are with their family. They were very happy to be released,” he added.
Hundreds of Christians fled Jaranwala’s Christian quarter last summer when rioters surged in, setting churches ablaze and raiding homes.
At its peak the crowd numbered around 5,000 and was spurred by mosque loudspeakers announcing a Holy Qur’an had been torn, scrawled with offensive words and stuck to the walls of a local mosque.
Christians, who make up around two percent of Pakistan’s population, occupy one of the lowest rungs in society and are frequently targeted with spurious blasphemy allegations.
Politicians have also been assassinated, lawyers murdered and students lynched over such accusations.
Last week, police were forced to intervene in the eastern city of Lahore when a woman wearing a shirt adorned with Arabic calligraphy was surrounded by a mob accusing her of blasphemy.
The crowd of men said the clothing depicted the Holy Qur’an but it was in fact emblazoned with the Arabic word for “beautiful.”
The woman issued an apology for causing offense, but none of the men were arrested.
Pakistan’s top Supreme Court judge has also been targeted by veiled death threats recently after ordering the release of a man accused of disseminating a blasphemous text.


Inflation in Pakistan hits 23.1%, reaching its lowest point since June 2022

Updated 01 March 2024
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Inflation in Pakistan hits 23.1%, reaching its lowest point since June 2022

  • Pakistan faces historically high inflation, though the situation has improved from 38 percent recorded last year in May
  • Given the February inflation rate, experts predict the central bank to begin monetary policy easing from this month

KARACHI: Pakistan’s inflation rate was recorded at 23.1 percent in February, marking its lowest level since June 2022, on an annual basis despite surging food and energy costs, according to official data released on Friday.
Pakistan continues to face historically high inflation, though the situation has improved from the all-time high level of 38 percent recorded last year in May.
Last month, the prices of tomatoes and cigarettes saw substantial increases of 114.6 percent and 71.2 percent, respectively, on an annual basis. Condiments and spices rose by 55.3 percent, sugar by 53.4 percent, fresh vegetables by 46.2 percent and wheat flour by 45 percent.
In the non-food category, gas charges skyrocketed by 318.7 percent, electricity charges by 74.9 percent, transport services by 35.1 percent, textbooks by 34.7 percent, newspapers by 34.2 percent and accommodation services by 29.5 percent.
February’s inflation, the lowest in 20 months, suggests a potential easing in the country’s monetary policy stance.
“The low inflation rate was expected and interestingly despite incorporating recent gas and petroleum price increase in February the number is low. We will see this trend continue in the future and inflation trajectory will be downward,” Tahir Abbas, head of research at Arif Habib Limited, told Arab News.
Given the February inflation rate, experts predict the central bank will begin monetary policy easing from March onwards, with the market anticipating an indicative interest rate cut of around 1 percent this month.
Since June last year, the State Bank of Pakistan has maintained the interest rate at an all-time high of 22 percent.
The central bank recently adjusted its average inflation forecast for the current fiscal year to 23-25 percent, up from 20-22 percent, due to hikes in energy prices.