Wheels of Justice Catching up with Rogue Politicians in Pakistan

Justice delayed, as they say according to an old adage, is justice denied. In Pakistan, which claims to be an Islamic Republic and where the Qur'an is supposed to be the font of all jurisprudence and law-making, justice has been both delayed and denied for long. So long, in fact, that its 180 million people-a vast majority of them grinding in abject poverty and toiling hard to eke out a living in an ambience of runaway inflation and woefully inefficient basic socio-economic infrastructure-had almost given up any hope of receiving justice from any quarters.

Thankfully for its people, that desperation and diffidence seems to be giving way to renewed hope for the long-sought rule of law in the country. And the torch of this born-again optimism has been lit by none other than the apex court of Pakistan.

On February 1, a 7-member bench of the Supreme Court of Pakistan found the country's Prime Minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani, in contempt of court and ordered him to appear before it for sentencing on February 13.

This isn't the first time in Pakistan's history that a sitting PM has been in breach of the court and found in defiance of it. The charismatic Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif-whose votaries hawked his credentials as being the first 'fully home-grown' leader of the country and a true 'son of thee soil'-had both been faulted for contempt of court but never sentenced.

In the current case, however, PM Gilani is up against a pro-active apex court which has avowedly taken upon itself the much trumpeted task of enforcing the rule of law in Pakistan, something that has so much been talked out before but never attained.

Until this incumbent apex court, headed by an unflagging and truly dynamic Chief Justice, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, came to life in the wake of former military dictator General Pervez Musharraf's Quixotic shenanigans, almost everyone in Pakistan, high or low, took it for granted that the long hands of justice weren't long enough to reach the well-heeled, the powerful and the influential, who somehow always managed to bend the law their own way.

That blasé resignation of the Pakistanis is now being replaced by a renewed faith in the impartiality of justice and belief that those who thought they were above the law aren't, after all, all that powerful and can be made answerable for violating the law of the land.

The offence that Gilani has been hauled up for is not one but a whole jumble of acts of defiance by him as Chief Executive of the State of Pakistan over the past tow or three years. At the hub of it is his persistent effort to shield his boss and mentor, the country's errant and notoriously corrupt President Asif Ali Zardari, from the application of the apex court's ruling centered on the infamous NRO ( National Reconciliation Ordinance) enforced by General Musharraf in the twilight of his rule, in 2007.

NRO, in the Pakistani context, has become the eye of not one but many storms that have been hovering over the horizon of Pakistan ever since Musharraf promulgated it to boost his chances for continued rule over Pakistan and benefit his, then, main detractor, the charismatic Benazir Bhutto and her errant husband, Asif Ali Zardari.

In a nutshell, NRO was a black law that came of the bat of a Pakistani Bonaparte desperate to hang on to power. It was widely known to all and sundry-inside and outside of Pakistan as well-that Musharraf was muscled into coming to terms with his nemesis, Benazir Bhutto, by the Americans whose own objective was political stability in a Pakistan that was their front-rank 'ally' in the ongoing 'war against terror.' The American master-minding of the deal between Musharraf and Benazir has been fully corroborated by a detailed account of it in the recently published memoirs of the then US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice.

The 'deal' stipulated a power-sharing formula under which Benazir was supposed to be elected PM of Pakistan while Musharraf was to go on staying at his post as President of the country. But Benazir and Zardari had dozens of corruption and money laundering cases pending against them, not only in the Pakistani courts but also abroad, mainly in Switzerland.

NRO was deemed as the panacea to 'correct' all the ills afflicting these and other corrupt Pakistani politicians by whitewashing all their acts of commission and omission with a broad sweep of the brush. The one-man promulgated ordinance washed away all the sins of BB and her husband-both were believed to have looted the country of billions of dollars-and paved the way for their political rehabilitation. Also benefiting from Musharraf's largesse were thousands of other corrupt and thieving politicians.

According to the figures revealed in the apex court, as many as 8041 people-politicians, bureaucrats and their cronies-benefited from the 'blissful' fallout of NRO. Together they had looted 932 billion Rupees from the people of Pakistan and stashed the loot away from Pakistan in Swiss, American and European banks. All of this rampage-of people's money and trust-was forgiven to them so that Musharraf may give them shelter under his wings and rule for another five years without fear.

Musharraf, worried about the apex court headed by a known crusader of the rule of law like Justice Chaudhry, also tried to fix the court by leaning hard on Chaudhry to resign, in March 2007. However, Justice Chaudhry stuck to his guns and wouldn't budge under relentless pressure from the arrogant dictator. He was incarcerated and his colleagues were sent packing.

What happened after that is recent history of Pakistan known to all and sundry. BB's tragic murder in Rawalpindi, on December 27, 2007, turned the course of history in Pakistan and also turned the tables on Musharraf's disingenuous and Machiavellian charade to hang on to power. Elections were held in Pakistan in February 2008 and the man who wasn't even supposed to return to Pakistan, the thieving Zardari, not only managed to boot out a nonplused Musharraf, but also managed to install himself in the Presidency.

Zardari, conscious of Justice Chaudhry's feared reputation as a champion of rule of law, used every trick in his bag of antics to resist his restoration and the return of his colleagues to the apex court. In the end, however, the people's pressure and the powerful military's siding with the popular sentiment forced his hand and that of his meak and obedient PM Gilani to restore the justices to their erstwhile positions.

The court, not out of vengeance but entirely in keeping with its advocacy of the rule of law, declared Musharra's black law null and void in November 2009 and on December 16 of the same year ordered the government of Gilani to write to the Swiss Government to reopen the money laundering and corruption proceedings against Asif Ali Zardari. Those proceedings had been suspended when the Government of Pakistan asked the Swiss courts to drop all cases and charges against Zardari because NRO had given him blanket pardon and a clean bill of health against corruption.

That's where the fate of rule of law had hung in balance, ever since that order was passed by the apex court and until it issued a fresh order, in December of 2011, in response to the government's appeal for review of its December 2009 verdict. The court, in a unanimous decision by its full bench, told the government that it had no choice but to write to the Swiss government to reopen corruption cases against Zardari.

For more than two years, Gilani has defied the court rulings-not only in the NRO case but also many others-with a straight face. He kept paying lip service to the rule of law and also professed that his government wasn't seeking to pick up a fight with the Supreme Court, but in actual practice he and his cabinet colleagues carried on a cat-and-mouse attitude with the court and left no one in Pakistan in any doubt that this notorious bunch of corrupt politicians was sworn to defying the court at all cost.

Gilani and his minions maintained a holier than thou attitude by insisting that President Zardari enjoyed blanket immunity from the reach of law, under article 249 of the Pakistani Constitution. The court has never been asked, however, by Gilani or Zardari or anybody else among their cohorts to give a ruling about Zardari's immunity, from civil suits in Pakistan or abroad. There is, of course, no immunity against criminal conduct.

Gilani, in his blatant defiance, has abysmally presumed, by himself, that Zardari has immunity in Swiss courts, too, and, as such, deemed it un-necessary to honour the apex court's ruling. That's the line of argument and reasoning that his lawyers have articulated in the apex court. But the court hasn't been convinced by this effete and seemingly absurd argument that just because PM Gilani didn't think the Swiss courts would have a different interpretation of law than the one in his own mind he didn't entertain the thought of writing to them as per the orders of the apex court of Pakistan.

It's hard to say how the court is going to honour or dishonour Gilani & Co's seemingly flawed reasoning that they don't consider themselves in contempt of court  because in their perception the court wanted them to do something which they thought was a non-starter. The matter will be decided by the apex court when Gilani would appear before it like someone caught in an act of defiance and error.

If convicted, Gilani will have to vacate the office. The Pakistan constitution clearly stipulate that anyone found in contempt of court, and sentenced as such, becomes ineligible to remain a member of the National Assembly and also forfeits the privilege of holding any office in Pakistan for at least 5 years.

Gilani has obviously chosen the tricky path of defying the highest court of the land out of his sense of loyalty to his mentor, who also happened to be the head of the ruling Pakistan People's Party. The other interpretation of Gilani's bizarre behaviour is that he's too supine and feckless to stand up to Zardari or even show any independence off him.

To the people of Pakistan, however, it's not important whether Gilani is sentenced or not, or whether as a result of a guilty verdict against him the government is toppled and fresh elections are called. What matters to them most-and what they see as a historic development the like of which hasn't been seen in Pakistan before-is that the long hand of the law of the land is, at long last, catching up with the high and mighty of the country. To them, it's heartening to know that the swaggering lords of the country aren't, after all, beyond the pale of law, and that their arrogant and self-promoting  rulers are humans too and not from another planet.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-29 February 2012 on page no. 18

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