September 20th, 2020
By Haider Kaleem
Among several issues discussed at the All Parties Conference organized by the Pakistan Bar Council in Islamabad on Thursday, two certainly topped the list. While current accounting procedures and the worrying state of civil liberties remained the main theme of the conference, one of the key discussions was over the cases filed against the voices of dissent in Pakistan; another has been about judicial appointments.
Cases against journalists Asad Ali Toor, Absar Alam, and Bilal Farooqi were slammed by the participants. The case of Sindh High Court lawyer Mohsin Azad also came under discussion – Azad been working on missing persons’ cases but was later abducted himself too. He was later discovered to be in the custody of LEAs. The abduction of a journalist Matiullah Jan was also highlighted.
The conference also went on to expound upon the process of the appointment and the accountability of judges in the superior judiciary, denouncing the way the judicial commission had been transformed into a ‘judges consortium’. They then presented their own unanimous list of ideas of how these issues could be resolved.
The APC resolution
Political figures and the legal fraternity were on the same page about the superior judiciary’s importance in assuring complete rule of law and supremacy of the constitution. But they believed that the current system of the appointment of judges was unsatisfactory, to say the least. They said it was a major obstacle to the functioning of a free, competent, and professional judiciary. Instead, they urged, that Article 175-A, which was relevant to the appointment of judges, and the process of accountability, must be brought under review.
They decided that the 19th Amendment should be discarded and a new forum should be constituted in which the role of the parliament has a greater role. Stakeholders, including the relevant authorities, bar councils, and the judiciary should convene on a single, equal platform to render fair decisions based on merit.
The conference also agreed that good governance means facilitating free and fair and transparent accountability processes. But the current system of accountability was redundant, ineffective, and controversial, and was being used as a political tool. Everyone present at the conference strongly condemned the existing accountability laws.
They proposed that a new law founded upon the principles of justice be drafted and with inputs from all political parties and stakeholders. All institutions and individuals should be brought under a singular law and under a singular establishment. Detaining an individual before a case is even registered should be outlawed. The participants rejected the way certain institutions were exempted from any form of accountability and determined that state officials should be brought under the purview of the same accountability laws.
Pakistan was being obstructed from a constitutional and democratic system. The Constitution of 1973 guarantees the safety, reinforcement, and strengthening of the federation, and any action or thought repugnant to this remained unacceptable.
Deteriorating civil liberties and basic rights to freedom of expression, press, and others had become a cause for grave concern. There were increasing instances of sedition charges against journalists, curbs on media houses, and enforced disappearances of critics of popular and acceptable discourse. The immediate drafting of a law for the protection of journalists was urged.
Fundamental liberties and rights of citizens are being undermined under the banner of 5th Generation Warfare – the conference denounced this development, and urged that all missing persons be immediately released from state detention and that under-trial detainees must be produced immediately in court.
More than anything though they condemned how there was an enforced silence surrounding issues of civil liberties, and resolved to break this silence. Participants strongly criticized increasing military interference in politics and determined that the military should remain outside the political sphere.
All participating political parties and groups resolved for a collective strategy to fulfill resolutions and that said that they would feature in the next political charter.
THOSE WHO WERE MISSING: TALES OF DISSENT
Col. Inam ur Rahim
Colonel (r) Inam-ur-Rahim, a lawyer who had fought cases for families of missing persons and was the coordinator for the Rawalpindi Bar Association’s Human Rights Committee, had been abused by security forces for violating the Official Secrets Act (1923).
The family only received the news three weeks after he had been picked up from his home in Askari 14, Garrison City, Rawalpindi, in the late hours of December 16th, 2019. According to his son, Husnain Inam, several armed men in plainclothes forcibly entered the premises and dragged his father who had been asleep in his bedroom, out of the house. They remained in the dark concerning his whereabouts and health for the next three weeks, during which Husnain Inam had filed a petition against his arrest, but the case remained in a quagmire.
During the hearing on Inam-ur-Rahim’s abduction in front of the Rawalpindi Registry of the Lahore High Court on January 2, 2020, Additional Attorney General Sajid Ilyas Bhatti confirmed to the judges that he was in the custody of law enforcement agencies, and was being interrogated for alleged violation of the Official Secrets Act 1923.
Under the Official Secrets Act (1923), any act that is prejudicial to the interests and the safety of the state, or that is in relation to the military, naval, and air force affairs of Pakistan or to any official secret code, is punishable by death or with imprisonment for a term of up to 14 years. At the same time, it is also not necessary for the prosecution to prove that the accused was guilty of any particular act tending to the state.
Inam-ur-Rahim was a prominent missing person lawyer, also known for legally combating the military in a variety of prominent and controversial cases, including challenging the appointment of General Asim Saleem Bajwa as chairman of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) Authority, a three-year tenure extension of General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani in 2010, registering a land allotment corruption case against General Pervez Musharraf, and pursuing a case regarding the suspicious disappearance of an alleged CIA spy Brigadier Raja Rizwan Ali Haider.
Veteran journalist Matiullah Jan appeared in the Supreme Court on July 21, 2020, for the hearing of a suo moto case against him. Matiullah was abducted on the day before his hearing but was recovered later at night after a period of 12 hours, during which there was complete silence on behalf of the authorities, with no possible explanation of where he might have been.
On his way to court, he was accompanied by a large number of journalists and lawyers. Talking to reporters outside the court, Jan said that on one side people were not even allowed to speak and on the other, those who dared to speak were being served contempt of court notices.
Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmed had taken a suo moto notice of Jan’s allegedly ‘derogatory’ tweet against the judiciary and had constituted a three-member bench to hear the case.
At the start of the hearing, the bench comprising the Chief Justice, Justice Mushir Alam, and Justice Ijazul Ahsan inquired the attorney general about the incident of his abduction. The AG told the court that the government had initiated immediate proceedings regarding the case.
The Chief Justice expressed displeasure over Matiullah’s statement not being recorded after his recovery and ordered the police to record one at once. The apex court directed the DIG police to submit a report regarding the journalist’s abduction within two weeks.
The Pakistan Union of Journalists (PFUJ) has been closely following the proceedings of the Matiullah Jan abduction case. PFUJ announced the formation of a six-member committee headed by senior journalist Muhammad Ziauddin to track the progress of the police investigation.
Asad Ali Toor
Journalist Asad Toor was granted a week’s transit/protective bail by the Justice Athar Minallah, the Chief Justice of the Islamabad High Court on September 19, 2020. An FIR had been registered against Toor at the Jaatli Police Station, Rawalpindi for allegedly ‘spreading propaganda against the state, particularly the armed forces’. The FIR includes defamation charges, three sections of the Prevention of the Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) as well as Section 505 of the PPC, a non-bailable and non-cognizable offense.
“There are no concrete facts in the FIR as such, it relies more on generic statements than hard evidence,” says Haider Imtiaz, Toor’s legal counsel. “The complainant, Hafiz Ehtasham, has claimed in the FIR that he has attached “screenshots” of the alleged “propaganda posts”, but so far the police have shared no such content with us. The FIR contains Section 37 of PECA which is not even a penal offense, this is how tangible it is,” laughs Haider.
Interestingly this is not the first time Hafiz Ehtasham has taken, what can be termed as ‘frivolous’ legal action. Since 2018, Ehtasham has filed petitions asking for the Laal Masjid to be reopened, a time limit on the hearing of blasphemy cases, the courts to disqualify Imran Khan for not declaring Tyrian White as his daughter, and even one against Fazl-ur-Rehman’s Azadi March.
“People claim that I was ‘asked’ to file this FIR but that’s not true,” says Hafiz Ehtasham shrewdly. “I take legal action for the greater good of this country.”
When asked what exactly disturbed him so much about Toor’s posts, he failed to reply.
“I can’t point out a particular post right now but I have submitted screenshots of 10 social media posts to the police,” he claims. “There is a whole network of lawyers who guides me about these things, but my lawyer Tariq Asad can discuss the legalities of it all,” he explains.
Ironically, Advocate Tariq Asad, President of the Shuhada Foundation, a trust set up for the ‘martyrs’ of Laal Masjid, denies being Ehtasham’s lawyer at all. “I respect the journalist community too much to allow such a thing to happen. I was not even in the city when this FIR was filed and he did not consult me at all,” he clarifies. Advocate Tariq, who himself has a long history of “serial petitioning” including one against a “hair removal cream”, claims that he “strictly opposes the FIR”.
Meanwhile Advocate Tariq even ‘removed’ Ehtasham from the Shuhada Trust for being too “immature and childish”, not long ago but he was reinstated on his position as the spokesperson of the foundation.
REPRESENTING THE WOMEN
Not many women politicians or lawyers were present at the APC, but Central Information Secretary of the Pakistan People’s Party from Sindh, Nafisa Shah was one of the few attending the conference. Apart from her, there were PML-N’s Mariyum Aurangzeb and PPP Senator Sehar Kamran.
In the assembly and other places where power can be seen, Shah’s image is known to be a bold and brave one when it comes to taking a firm stand for the fundamental rights of the citizens amid shrinking spaces for dissent.
In an exclusive conversation with Voicepk.net, she blamed the policy of the current government for the on-going crisis of civil liberties in Pakistan and appreciated the PBC for being a neutral body and still being able to unite all the opposition parties including the smallest parties.
Speaking about General Musharraf’s regime, she remembered how all the political parties converged behind the lawyers during the movement for the independence of the judiciary in Pakistan.
A member of the national assembly, Nafisa Shah also warned about the historical impact of extremism in Pakistan and mentioned that there is another wave of the same kind of sectarian violence being instigated in Pakistan which is going to be very dangerous for democracy.