A dramatic day ends in a whimper
By Cyril Almeida
ISLAMABAD: It’s now a familiar scene in Courtroom No 1.
The air thick with anticipation and apprehension, the room filled with TV anchors and stars from the legal firmament, everyone with a theory, no one really knowing what will unfold during the latest extraordinary proceedings.
Yesterday, however, there was a new twist: there was no clear legal point at dispute.
Essentially, a report aired late Thursday evening on a private TV news channel was the trigger for 17 judges of the Supreme Court of Pakistan assembling on Friday morning to determine if the government may or may not be contemplating the ouster of judges. Good luck trying to explain that in legal terms.
What it was, however, extraordinary and unprecedented, so all anyone in the news pool at the Supreme Court wanted to talk about: was there any truth to the report the government may de-notify the March ’09 order restoring the deposed judges of the Supreme Court?
The reporter who broke the ‘news’ was nowhere to be found in or near the court. The word among fellow court reporters: he had left town overnight for a ‘family wedding’.
Curiously, more than 12 hours after the story first broke, no reporter appeared sure of the veracity or the provenance of the allegations. In the world of political reporting, 12 hours is a lifetime. Even more curiously, some members of a media house known for its ferocious criticism of the government were altogether dismissive of the story.
But all of that was beside the point. The 17 judges of the Supreme Court were clearly agitated, seeing stark parallels between the run-up to the Nov 3, 2007 Emergency and the present day.
Was it fear anchored in fact or mere paranoia? Hard to say.
If there was something unusual about Thursday evening in Islamabad, it was the presence of the Jadoogar of Jeddah, Sharifuddin Pirzada. The legend of the man and his dark arts is so entrenched, his mere presence in certain quarters can send alarm bells ringing.
But whatever caused the panic in the Supreme Court and whether the panic was justified or not, it did produce many odd moments in court yesterday.
One in particular was revealing. The normally restrained Justice Saqib Nisar tore into the mournful and laconic Attorney General, Maulvi Anwarul Haq.
The justice said he wasn’t interested in what the government may or may not be thinking or what it may or may not be planning, he just wanted to know, could – could, not would or should – the government issue a de-notification order to reverse a 14-member Supreme Court bench’s decision on the matter?
The question turned on its head the universally understood relationship between a judiciary and executive: here was the Supreme Court asking the government to give its opinion on a matter of law.
Was it a rhetorical question? No, other justices repeated the demand and Maulvi Mushtaq was dispatched to get an answer from a ‘high constitutional officer’.
When the court reconvened at 12.45pm, perhaps it wasn’t a surprise the Attorney General was left to say the prime minister had been unable to give an answer because he was ‘in a meeting’. A non-legal question had received a political response.
Cue more anguish and anger from the bench.
Eventually, Chief Justice Chaudhry interrupted the outpouring of consternation and unhappiness and began to dictate a long-winded order. His voice unsteady, the chief justice tripped up several times on routine legal and English phraseology. Clearly, it had been a long night.
Outside the court, reporters tried to make sense of what had transpired. Had the court issued a ‘restraining order’ against the government? Was the reference to ‘administrative heads’ an appeal to the army to protect the court?In truth, however, those were not the real stories of the day. The story of the day was that the Electronic Media Age is well and truly upon us.
In a legal sense, nothing changed yesterday between the government and the Supreme Court. But because of a still-unconfirmed report in the electronic media, the judiciary-executive ‘clash’ had just chalked up another, thoroughly unexpected, quite bewildering, round.