Opinion | Pakistan's judges need to stop getting involved in politics – The Washington Post

An independent judiciary is one of the crucial pillars of any genuine liberal democracy. Here in Pakistan, a new scandal has ignited a firestorm of controversy precisely because it is reminding us that our judicial branch can make no claim to independence. Our country’s senior judges have intervened in politics again and again throughout history.
The Supreme Court of Pakistan has disqualified sitting prime ministers many times. The judges even decreed the hanging of one prime minister during the reign of a military dictator. There was no public outcry against the judiciary’s dubious actions back then. But society is changing.
On Nov. 21, an investigative journalism website released an alleged audio recording on which former chief justice Saqib Nisar can be heard plotting against then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif three years ago. On the tape, Nisar can be heard urging his unknown interlocutor to “penalize” Sharif and his daughter, Maryam Nawaz. (Both were under investigation for corruption in 2018, when the recording was apparently made.)
“The institutions have asked to do so, whether it is fair or not, it has to be done,” says Nisar at one point. (The journalist Ahmad Noorani, who broke the story, has explained that the term “institutions” refers to the military establishment.) Nisar also notes that they want Imran in power — apparently referring to Imran Khan, the current prime minister — and implies that the judiciary must do what it can to facilitate his rise to power.
Nisar immediately claimed that the recording was fabricated. Members of the current government have started defending Nisar, apparently on the instructions of Khan. Nisar’s defenders claim that the audio is part of a campaign launched by Sharif. (Who, it should be noted, used judges against his own opponents in the past.) Some officials say that the audio of the former chief justice is a fake, cobbled together from his old speeches. Noorani says that the tape’s authenticity has been confirmed by an American company that examined it.
It’s important to note that Noorani is not living in Pakistan. He is currently living in the United States, where he runs his own website. He was forced to flee his homeland after his journalistic investigations into the corruption of those in power proved too risky. He was attacked in Islamabad, Pakistan in 2017, and the police failed to arrest any of the culprits. He feared for his life due to continuous propaganda against him on some TV channels. Soon after that, he lost his job. No Pakistani newspaper or TV channel was willing to take the risk of hiring him.
Just a few days ago, a prominent lawyer, Ali Ahmad Kurd, harshly criticized the judiciary for its past political interference at a conference in Lahore that brought together Indian and Pakistani journalists and activists. Also in attendance at the conference was Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmad, who reacted angrily to Kurd’s remarks: No one should dare to dictate to the judiciary. This is the first time that a prominent lawyer has criticized the judiciary so directly for violating the principle of noninterference in political matters.
The Nisar audio leaked a day later. It’s worth noting that Nisar himself has figured in past accusations about political interference by the judiciary. Three years ago, a human rights group, the Women’s Action Forum, filed a reference against the then-chief justice. The complaint, submitted to the Supreme Judicial Council, listed 25 blatant violations that had allegedly been committed by Nisar during his tenure. Yet the complaint was dismissed within weeks of his retirement. Now, two years after his retirement, Nisar is facing a very specific allegation of a different kind. This allegation is not ultimately about a person. It’s about institutions.
We urgently need to know the truth about the allegations against Nisar. Larger issues are at stake. Pakistanis want to know why no prime minister in Pakistan has ever completed his or her five-year term. Yet no action has ever been taken against any of the chief justices involved in the corresponding political maneuvers. (Nor, needless to say, against any of the army chiefs who were involved in the same intrigues.)
People are not prepared to trust simple denials from institutions. The next audio or video scandal could very well rock Pakistan’s institutions to their core. The country urgently needs an impartial probe of this latest scandal to find out the truth.
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