Threatening letters: The Perilous Path of Pakistan’s Judges

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Qamar Bashir

By: Qamar Bashir

In a pivotal moment in Pakistan’s history, the seven-member Supreme Court bench commenced hearings on the serious allegations raised by six judges regarding attempts to intimidate them into favorable rulings. At the outset, the Chief Justice and the government exchanged mutual praise for addressing the matter seriously, with the constitution of a one-man commission. Expressing regret over conspiratorial statements against Syed Tassadaq Jilani, who felt intimidated, recused himself from this significant responsibility.

The initial two hours of the session were dedicated to providing a thorough explanation, aimed at dispelling any perception that the Supreme Court was avoiding its responsibility. Despite this, the Chief Justice unequivocally affirmed the independence of the judiciary and vowed to defend it vigorously. The discussion also addressed long standing issues that have been overlooked, including instances where the Supreme Court’s orders have been obstructed. Specifically, recent bail orders issued by the Supreme Court were frustrated by frivolous and illogical Magistrate’s Preventive Orders (MPOs) issued by deputy commissioners.

One judge made a striking statement, acknowledging the intimidation, coercion, and blackmail faced by the judiciary to sway decisions according to certain interests. This candid admission highlighted the need to confront the reality of these challenges rather than turning a blind eye. Although the attorney general reflected the full cooperation of the government to proceed with the impugned case, it was evident that the jurisdiction of the civil government is severely limited when it comes to holding intelligence agencies accountable.

While the Chief Justice attempted to navigate the complexity of the situation at hand, other judges were resolute in their stance, emphasizing that this presents a rare opportunity to emancipate the judiciary. They urged the court to seize this moment without getting bogged down in legal technicalities as a pretext to evade responsibility. Despite the Chief Justice’s view that the matter pertained to the High Court and therefore fell outside the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction according to the constitution, a fellow judge intervened. He pointed out that the aggrieved judges had brought the issue to the attention of the Chief Justice of the Islamabad High Court, but no remedial action had been taken. Consequently, the judges sought guidance from the Supreme Judicial Council on how to proceed if the High Court proved incapable of addressing the matter, highlighting the urgency and gravity of the situation.

The supreme court took up the matter after receiving a letter from six judges who alleged that they have been facing blatant and open unconstitutional intimidation, coercion, and arm-twisting from certain unscrupulous elements within the country’s all powerful intelligence agency.

Their bravery, however, was met with a chilling response. Anonymous letters filled with threatening poisonous powder arrived, targeting all judges of the Islamabad High Court and today two judges of the Lahore High Court also received the same threatening letters, adding to the atmosphere of fear and intimidation.

This disturbing development coincided with a suo moto action taken by the Supreme Court and an appeal being heard by the Islamabad High Court on the Cipher case against the Founder of PTI, Mr. Imran Khan. Mr. Shah Mahmood Qureshi, another stalwart of PTI, sent a clear message: submit or face dire consequences.

However, conveniently, during the hearing of the suo moto case, the Supreme Court did not make even a passing reference to this stunning development. It is evident that such serious threats are not only targeting the judges of the High Court but also the judges of the Supreme Court who are currently hearing the impugned case.

It serves as a brazen warning that any attempt by the Supreme Court to challenge or investigate alleged interference from powerful entities will be met with intimidation and threats. This act seeks to undermine the authority and independence of the judiciary, signaling that even the highest echelons of the legal system are not immune to coercion and intimidation tactics.

Additionally, it reflects a broader assault on the rule of law and the principles of democracy, as it seeks to silence judicial scrutiny and accountability. The message is clear: any attempt to uphold justice and transparency will be met with severe consequences, creating a climate of fear and intimidation within the judicial system.

My sympathies also go to the CJSC who finds itself in an extraordinarily challenging position, torn between the imperative to safeguard the judiciary’s independence and credibility and the immense pressure exerted by various political interests seeking to exploit the situation for their own gains. With the integrity of the judiciary hanging in the balance and the hopes of 250 million citizens relying on the court’s ability to deliver justice, the Chief Justice bears the weighty responsibility of liberating the judiciary from the grip of intimidation and restoring its capacity to administer impartial justice.

However, he is keenly aware of the delicate equilibrium necessary to maintain positive relations with the establishment, crucial for ensuring the safety of judges and their families. Yet, the Chief Justice faces an unparalleled dilemma: how to address the presence of unscrupulous elements within the intelligence agencies when no individual, entity, or institution possesses the authority to compel these operatives to adhere to the constitution and the law of the land.

Before delving further into the complexities of the situation, it’s crucial to provide clarity on the term “Establishment.” When the judiciary refers to alleged interference from intelligence agencies in its core functions of dispensing justice fairly, transparently, and without bias or fear, it pertains to a small faction within these agencies. These individuals may disregard the constitution, the rule of law, and the welfare of the Pakistani people. Their actions aim to manipulate the judiciary for what they perceive as the greater good and in the greater national interest, but they overlook that true progress and prosperity of any country can only be achieved through a judiciary that operates freely, fairly, and transparently and without facing any undue influence.

The six judges who bravely stepped forward as whistleblowers have rendered invaluable service to both the judiciary and the nation. Their decision to speak out, despite the grave risks to their own lives and those of their loved ones, underscores the immense pressure they must have endured in carrying out their duties. Ultimately, they reached a point where they could no longer bear the burden alone and turned to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court for assistance. It’s essential to recognize that the Chief Justice, like any human being, is vulnerable to the same dangers faced by those who spoke out. Moreover, while the constitution of Pakistan ostensibly extends its protections nationwide, analysts suggest there are areas where its authority is challenged, posing additional complexities and risks.

By: Qamar Bashir
Press Secretary to the President (Rtd)
Former Press Minister at Embassy of Pakistan to France
Former MD, SRBC