A possible showdown

Prime Minister Gilani has stood his ground on the issue of reopening the Swiss cases. He has reiterated that parliament is supreme and President Zardari has immunity under the constitution. The president is part of parliament and the supreme commander of the armed forces. Article 248 (2) of the constitution clearly says: “No criminal proceedings whatsoever shall be instituted or continued against the President … in any court during his term of office.” But PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif, on the other hand, is of the view that the Supreme Court (SC) will be the one to decide whether the president enjoys immunity. It seems that Mian sahib is taking sides with the judiciary for political gains. It should not be forgotten that today’s ‘champion’ of the judiciary was the same Nawaz Sharif whose last stint in power yielded an attack on the SC by his supporters in 1997.

It is time that we take stock of the current situation and the consequences that could ensue. The National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) was a negotiated deal and a concession by General Musharraf to Benazir Bhutto and the PPP in order to pave the way for her to end her self-imposed exile and re-enter politics. Musharraf wanted a political lifeline after his popularity took a sharp turn downwards. Though the PML-N was not a direct beneficiary of the NRO, in the wake of the ordinance, the Sharifs were also able to reinsert themselves in the political process. Without the NRO and the re-entry of late Ms Bhutto into Pakistani politics, the Sharif brothers too would have been left high and dry in exile. The NRO’s controversial weight has largely been visited on the politicians despite the fact that out of the 8,041 beneficiaries, only 34 are politicians.

Chief Justice (CJ) Iftikhar Chaudhry’s remarks that “the prime minister is a wise man, he must know the consequences of the non-implementation of the NRO verdict” can be construed in a negative sense. There is a risk that the institutions of the state are transgressing their limits as laid down in the constitution and thus the respected CJ’s words may make the SC controversial and bring into question the impartiality of the apex court. Judges have to be cautious in their utterances to avoid the risk of lowering the courts’ respect and dignity.

Prime Minister Gilani has now asked the NRO beneficiaries to step down voluntarily, but this should have been done earlier given the logical implications after the NRO was struck down by the SC. On the other hand, the ruling party seems to have decided to gird up its loins and defend its position vis-à-vis President Zardari. It is extremely unfortunate that in the middle of immense crises, we have come to this pass. Presumably, the summary sent by the law ministry to the prime minister has suggested that the government should not write a letter to the Swiss authorities, which is what the SC has asked them to do. A bare reading of the overall situation seems to suggest that it may be difficult to reopen the Swiss cases and satisfy the court. If the government does send the letter to the Swiss authorities, what would happen if the Swiss refuse to entertain its request? A wiser course of action would be for the SC to review its directive regarding the reopening of Swiss cases, as it would lower the respect of our country if a sitting president is put in an embarrassing position before the world.

(my editorial in Daily Times)

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