Of contempt and Justice (retd) Chaudhry

Pakistan’s most popular Chief Justice (CJ) Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry retired last week. When the clock struck midnight, a friend tweeted: “For the record I state that I hold Justice (retired) Iftikhar Chaudhry in contempt, with retrospective effect.”

CJ Chaudhry lorded it over Courtroom 1 like no other. While he reigned supreme, most people eulogised him — many of them still do — but as his tenure came to an end, even some of his supporters became his detractors. I am no fan of opportunistic detraction but somehow felt vindicated at this turn of events.

The Lawyers’ Movement began as a populist movement but it ended up politicising the judiciary, especially Justice (retd) Chaudhry. The power that came with the Lawyers’ Movement led the restored judiciary to act in a manner that was beyond its ambit of power.

Justice (retd) Chaudhry exposed himself to criticism due to some of his judgements, including the way the apex court handled (read mishandled) his son’s alleged corruption case.

“He asserted judicial authority as opposed to the military establishment and extended the writ of the apex court to areas where civilian intervention had been prohibited. The pro-activism of the judiciary under him had a positive side as well as a flipside. The positive side was on human rights; CJ Chaudhry played a very active role in the case of missing persons, which of course facilitated a lot of helpless people. On the other hand, his intervention in policy matters and executive appointments almost paralysed the previous government,” says journalist Imtiaz Alam.

The way Justice (retd) Chaudhry and the apex court went after former President Asif Ali Zardari’s presidential immunity begs the question why it all happened. The entire debate related to how Mr Zardari was trying to save his own skin was bogus to begin with. Criminalising your own president in another country (Switzerland, in this case) and the loss of presidential immunity would have essentially meant the loss of Pakistan’s sovereignty in the truest sense.

Memogate, sacking of Prime Minister Gilani and other cases pertaining to the executive not only paralysed the previous Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government but drained its energies.

It could have easily destabilised a democratic regime, which would have been a great disservice to the struggle for democracy in Pakistan if the previous government had collapsed due to the CJ’s excesses.

Mian Mohammad, Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari proved to be the most sophisticated and mature set of political rivals in the region because of the way they played it out in the last five years.

Mr Sharif may have played in the hands of the judiciary for a while but when he understood what kind of dangerous game was being played by the judiciary in the name of ‘justice’, he backed off and played his role as a responsible democratic leader.

In the name of an independent judiciary, CJ Chaudhry got away with many things, especially accountability. Pakistan does not need a disruptive and bullying judiciary; what it needs is a truly independent judiciary that is both accountable and ethical.

Goodbye Justice (retd) Chaudhry, you will certainly not be missed.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)


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