25th November 2021
By Ahmed Saeed
Three days after the conclusion of the two-day Asma Jahangir Conference 2021, the federal government continues to criticize the event.
In a Wednesday address, Prime Minister Imran Khan alluded to former three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif when he lamented that an individual declared a convict by the Supreme Court of Pakistan was allowed to give a speech at the same conference which had been attended by the Chief Justice of Pakistan.
“How disappointing that in a function in Lahore, the Chief Justice is invited… Supreme Court judges are invited. And who gives a speech? A man whom the Supreme Court has convicted! He who has lied and escaped abroad… he’s giving a speech!” Khan had exclaimed.
Speaking to Voicepk.net regarding the decision to block Sharif’s live address at the conference, Vice-Chair of the Pakistan Bar Council Khushdil Khan stated that there were no legal restrictions nor any legal precedent that could prevent an absconder from speaking out.
“Just because one is an absconder does not mean one should be denied expression. Article 19 is very clear that everyone has the right to speak,” he said.
According to senior lawyer and head of Professionals Group (a lawyers group in direct opposition to the Asma Jahangir Group), under Article 19 of the Constitution of Pakistan, an absconder or convict’s right to speech cannot be restricted. He however suggested that judges should refrain from attending events where political speeches are to be made.
“The right of an individual to speak under Article 19 cannot be taken away because one is a convict or a fugitive,” stated the Senior Vice-President of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). “Our contention is that it was not reasonable to call judges to a political function.
Hamid Khan further said that suspending the internet to stop Sharif’s speech was a regrettable act, and that it was nothing short of plain censorship.
“Where is it written in the constitution or laws that the right of a Pakistani citizen, or even a citizen of another country, be stripped of the right to speak?” he queried.
According to former Supreme Court Bar Association of Pakistan (SCBAP) President and former Justice (retd) Rashid Rizvi, the government should address the concerns highlighted by senior lawyer Ali Ahmed Kurd in his speech, rather than criticize Nawaz Sharif’s speech.
“It is true that an absconder is not entitled to the right to an audience until and unless they surrender themselves. However, this is a political case. There is no talk on the real issues which Ali Ahmed Kurd spoke about and everyone is too afraid to touch upon,” he told Voicepk.net.
He also added that levelling accusations against others was commonplace, however if only “angels” are allowed to address the conference then, then those in uniform should be called.
According to senior lawyer Salman Akram Raja, a fugitive may not get judicial relief, however there is no law that deprives them of the right to speak and for people to hear their case.
“It is important to understand that humanity and to be human is a status that cannot be resiled by one’s conviction or absconding. It is a different debate entirely if an absconder is refusing to show up in court or if the courts do not grant them relief, however if the absconder makes a speech without first showing up in court, and the people want to hear what they have to say, then how can restrictions be imposed on them?” he asked. “Which law or constitution says that ears be plugged and one’s tongue be ripped out?”
It should be noted that Nawaz Sharif was convicted by an accountability court while his appeal against this conviction is currently pending with the Islamabad High Court. Sharif was granted bail by the Lahore High Court due to his poor health and was allowed to leave the country by the Federal Cabinet for treatment.
In the recent past, there have been multiple cases where convicts or fugitives not only stated their position, but the media was allowed to convey their statements to the public. The one example that stands out the most is former dictator General (retd) Pervez Musharraf’s statements against his death sentence by a special court for high treason under Article 6. Musharraf had strongly criticized the decision and termed it the result of personal enmity.
Former finance minister Ishaq Dar’s interview to the BBC in English was translated to Urdu and aired on several news channels.
Furthermore, following the arrest of former Emir of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) Ehsanullah Ehsan, his interview was aired on national television, on which the parents of APS students who had been martyred in a TTP attack in 2014 also expressed grave concern.
Hours before Saulat Mirza’s execution in 2015, his video statement from the Machh High Security Prison was released to the media, which led to the suspension of his execution.
Despite the fact that Asma Jahangir Conference 2021 involved thorough and productive discussions among over 160 experts and political and social activists on 19 areas of human rights abuses and developments in Pakistan, the government has chosen to heap criticism on Sharif’s speech during the concluding ceremony which had been halted by the PTA on orders of a “competent authority.”
Well-known journalist and anchorperson Shahzeb Khanzada in his show also called attention to the fact that there are others declared fugitives by the courts of Pakistan whose speeches and statements are allowed to be broadcast. This raises the question whether the matter lies with the fugitive or to muzzle free speech that the government does not agree with?