The resumption of a court case in Pakistan this week has reinforced a key question about why Islamabad wants to remove a top judge who is widely reputed to be one of the most competent and honest in the country.
On June 3, a full bench of the Pakistani Supreme Court continued to hear a case by a fellow judge. Justice Qazi Faez Isa, one of the most senior Supreme Court justices, had lodged a case against the government’s legal complaint last year that was aimed at his potential removal from office over allegations of undeclared assets.
In an apparent blow to the government’s claims, Justice Umar Ata Bandial, the head of the 10-member bench hearing the case, noted there were no allegations of “corruption or dishonesty” against Isa, according to reports in the Pakistani press.
Bandial also questioned the government’s motives in demanding Isa prove the money trail of properties reportedly held abroad by his relatives.
“Judges are placed on a high pedestal in our society; hence they should be clean from any criticism,” said Farogh Naseem, the government’s lawyer. Naseem, a reputed turncoat politician, resigned as Pakistan’s law minister on June 1 to represent the federal government in the case.
Justice Maqbool Baqar, another judge on the bench, said there were concerns that Isa was facing the proceedings because some in the country were not happy with his rulings.
“You should first argue on the subject of mala fide and tell us about the basis on which the reference had been filed against the petitioner judge,” he asked Naseem, according to Pakistani daily The News.
The reference, or case, to which Baqar alluded was the original government complaint in May 2019 that requested the Supreme Judicial Council, the top accountability forum for senior judges, try Isa for undeclared foreign assets.
The case followed a landmark ruling by Isa months earlier in February 2019 that disparaged the powerful military for its role in a sit-in protest by an Islamist group against the civilian government in 2017.
In the ruling Isa asked the Pakistani government, intelligence agencies, and the military’s public relations office to work within their mandate.
“The constitution emphatically prohibits members of the armed forces from engaging in any kind of political activity, which includes supporting a political party, faction, or individual,” the ruling observed. “The government of Pakistan through the Defense Ministry and respective chiefs of the army, the navy, and the air force are directed to initiate action against the personnel under their command who are found to have violated their oath.”
Isa wrote the verdict after hearing a suo moto case about a sit-in protest in Islamabad in November 2017. The Pakistani Army had played a prominent public role in eventually ending the sit-in protest by the Islamist group Tehreek-e Labaik Pakistan (TLP), which had paralyzed the capital, Islamabad, for weeks.
“The perception that ISI may be involved in or interferes with matters with which an intelligence agency should not be concerned with, including politics, therefore was not put to rest,” Isa wrote in the verdict while referring to the country’s secret service the Inter-Services Intelligence with its acronym.
In April 2019, Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI), the country’s ruling party, the Defense Ministry, and several other government departments and individuals filed lawsuits to petition the court to review Isa’s ruling.
The Defense Ministry asked the top court to review the verdict because it contained "adverse observations and negative declaratory remarks" about the military, which it said could affect the “morale” of troops. The PTI argued that the Supreme Court overturned the ruling because Isa was biased.
But Isa appeared to take on the government’s criticism and efforts to remove him head on.
“Selective leaks amount to character assassination, jeopardizing my right to due process and fair trial,” Isa wrote in a May 2019 letter to Pakistani President Arif Alvi. “[It] undermines the institution of the judiciary.”
The case evoked a strong reaction from Pakistani lawyers. They protested the move as Additional Attorney General Zahid Ebrahim, one of the most senior government lawyer, resigned days after the case was officially lodged in late May.
“Unless resisted, it will cause irreparable damage to the institution [of the judiciary], which is the protector of our fundamental rights and the bedrock of our fledgling democracy,” Ebrahim wrote in his resignation letter.
In what was seen as a major blow to the government’s case against Isa, Attorney-General Anwar Mansoor Khan resigned on February 20. He stepped down after the country’s main lawyers association called for his resignation after the Supreme Court ordered him to apologize or prove his controversial remarks about members of the bench hearing Isa’s case.
Three months later, the case is back in the headlines in Pakistan. Many now see it as a litmus test of whether the country’s judiciary can retain a modicum of independence or if it completely capitulates to the military and the current civilian administration it supports.