As the full bench of the supreme court debated whether the case should go to the Supreme Judicial Council, Justice Isa complained about the propriety of the reference filed by President Alvi.
The president of Pakistan, Arif Alvi, filed a reference in May 2019 against Justice Qazi Faez Isa of the Supreme Court of Pakistan asking the Supreme Judicial Council to probe him for “concealing his properties in the United Kingdom allegedly held in the name of his wife and children”. The implication was that the judge had taken bribes and then laundered the sums with which his family had bought the properties in the UK.
Isa became a member of the Supreme Court of Pakistan in 2014, after serving as chief justice of the Balochistan High Court for five years. His father, Qazi Muhammad Essa, was a close associate of Muhammad Ali Jinnah.
As the full bench of the supreme court debated whether the case should go to the Supreme Judicial Council, Justice Isa complained about the propriety of the reference filed by President Alvi. Anticipating his ouster from the supreme court, lawyers across Pakistan protested, charging that Justice Isa’s judgment pertaining to the sit-in of the fanatically religious party Tehreek Labbaik Party (TLP) had unleashed the fury of “the powers-that-be” against him.
Salahuddin Ahmed, a former president of the Karachi Bar Association, wrote: “Many consider Justice Isa’s real sin to be of a nature similar to a judge of the Islamabad High Court who had made public ‘interference’ from the powers-that-be in the working of the judiciary: In his Faizabad dharna judgment, the armed forces and intelligence agencies were directed to investigate whether their officers violated their oath by meddling in politics, inter alia, by doling out cash to protesters.”
The sit-in referred to has a crazy context: Crying blasphemy, the wheelchair-riding, foul-mouthed leader of TLP, Allama Khadim Hussain Rizvi had managed to get rid of a law minister of the Pakistan Muslim League government in 2017 for insulting the Holy Prophet PBUH through changes made in the Election Bill of 2017. The army intervened as Rizvi’s followers broke the bones of a policeman, blocked roads and torched vehicles. But they were given cash handouts before being released, giving them a sense of empowerment not available to any other political group.
Everyone thinks it is the verdict Isa delivered on the Faizabad sit-in, and the peculiar way the army behaved, that caused the presidential reference. An excerpt from Justice Isa’s judgment: “Politicking, manipulation of media undermines integrity of armed forces. Pursuant to the judgment in Air Marshal Asghar Khan’s case, the involvement of ISI and of the members of the armed forces in politics, media and other ‘unlawful activities’ should have stopped. Instead when TLP’s dharna participants received cash handouts from men in uniform, the perception of their involvement gained traction. The Director General of the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) has also taken to commenting on political matters.”
This objection to how democracy is disrupted in Pakistan could have been the last straw, leading finally to the presidential order against the judge.
About the property of Justice Isa’s settled-in-UK family, one knows little. His lawyer has revealed in court that Zarina Montessarat Khoso Carrera, wife of Justice Isa, was an independent lady and, while in Pakistan, had paid Rs 1,04,000 as tax in 2009, Rs 1,43,055 in 2010 and Rs 1,47,883 in 2011, whereas “Prime Minister Imran Khan paid Rs 103,763 as tax in 2017”. What flummoxed the judges was President Alvi’s oversight in not reading the Income Tax Law that lays no responsibility on a taxpayer to reveal the wealth of his family members, but holds that the Income Tax Department could demand such details if it chooses to.
Decisions taken in haste, at times at someone else’s behest, come to grief. After the 2013 polls, which Imran Khan lost, he leveled the charge of “35 painchar” (punctures) on the caretaker chief minister of Punjab, journalist Najam Sethi, meaning that he had “fixed” the election by applying 35 different rigging devices against Khan’s party. Sethi, who currently lives in London out of fear, went to court against him demanding “damages” in crores of rupees. It remains a pending case that the prime minister has carefully ignored. Will Justice Isa — who has been taken off the bench — too demand some kind of reparation for the pain caused to him by the president?
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 11, 2020 under the title 'Jolting The Judiciary'. The writer is consulting editor, Newsweek Pakistan