Sergio Restelli

Pakistan’s judiciary attempts to protect its democracy

Imran Khan official Twitter profile
Imran Khan official Twitter profile

In what is a damning indictment six judges of the Islamabad High Court (IHC) have
written a letter accusing Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of interference in judicial affairs, including attempts to pressurise judges through abduction and torture of their relatives and secret surveillance.

The letter, addressed to Pakistan’s Chief Justice Qazi Faez Isa, Supreme Court Justices Mansoor Ali Shah and Munib Akhtar and chief justices of the IHC and Peshawar High Court, also questioned if there exists a state police to “intimidate” and coerce judges. Subsequently, more than 300 lawyers from across the country, including Imaan Zainab Mazari-Hazir, Zainab Janjua, Abdul Moiz Jaferii, Salman Akram Raja, Taimur Malik and the son of the ex-CJP tasked with the probe, Saqib Jillani, issued a public statement.

The full statement was also shared on social media platform X by Mazari-Hazir and Janjua. The letter (25 March) mentions seven instances of interference and intimidation by the ISI “to influence the outcome of cases of interest” and pointed out that when two out of three judges in the bench hearing the plea to disqualify PTI leader Imran Khan for concealing his alleged daughter, opined that the case was not maintainable, they were pressured by “operatives of the ISI” to rule otherwise. That the pressure exerted was intense became evident when one of the judges had to be admitted to hospital due to high blood pressure, the letter claimed. The letter has been signed by Justices Mohsin Akhtar Kayani, Tariq Mehmood Jahangiri, Babar Sattar, Sardar Ejaz Ishaq Khan, Arbab Muhammad Tahir and Saman Rafat Imtiaz of the IHC. It s not as though the facts were not known before, it is just the timing of the letter that makes it significant. Fresh from elections, Pakistan continues to be in turmoil and the judiciary appears to be making an effort to asset itself. Success in this case may be a long way off, but it is an effort nonetheless!

Of far greater import is that over 300 lawyers, subsequently urged the Supreme
Court of Pakistan (SCP) to take notice of allegations of interference in the judiciary
by the ISI under Article 184(3) of the Constitution. In their public statement the
lawyers correctly said any government-led commission “would be bereft of
necessary independence and powers” to probe the claims. Article 184(3) of the
Constitution sets out the SC’s original jurisdiction and enables it to assume
jurisdiction in matters involving a question of “public importance” with reference to
the “enforcement of any of the fundamental rights” of Pakistan’s citizens. The
statement also said that the matter should be dealt with transparently and in the
public eye as “it is the public confidence in the independence of judiciary which
needs to be restored”. “In the interests of transparency and to ensure that the matter may not be politicised, we call upon the Supreme Court of Pakistan to constitute a bench comprising of all available judges to hear the matter and for the proceedings to be telecast live for public consumption,” it said.

The IHC judges in their missive complained that “interference on the part of
intelligence operatives” continued even after the IHC CJ’s assured that he had
spoken to the DG (C), ISI [in charge of counter-intelligence and internal security] and the latter had assured that no ISI official would approach the IHC judges. The letter also refers to the abduction of an IHC judge’s brother-in-law by armed men whoclaimed to be ISI operatives. The victim was “administered electric shocks” and
“forced to record a video” making false allegations, apparently against the judge.
“Subsequently, a complaint was filed against the judge of IHC before the SJC,
accompanied by an orchestrated media campaign to bring pressure to bear upon the
judge to resign.”

The letter reveals that in May 2023 an IHC inspection judge reported to the Chief
Justice that district court judges were being intimidated and crackers were thrown
into the house of one additional district and sessions judge. The judge was even
called to the IHC to verify the claims which he confirmed. But instead of probing the
allegations, the judge “was made officer on special duty and transferred to IHC,
before being sent back to Punjab as he was a judicial officer on deputation”. Last
year, during routine maintenance, an IHC judge found that his official residence had
been bugged with spy cameras. When data from the surveillance equipment was
recovered, it showed that “private videos of the judge and his family members” were
stored. “The matter was brought to the attention of Chief Justice IHC. There has
been no determination of who installed the equipment and who is to be held
accountable…”, the letter added.

Along with their letter, the six judges also attached copies of letters written to the IHC CJ on 10 May 2023 and 12 February 2024. Post this development Chief Justice of
Pakistan Qazi Faez Isa summoned a full court meeting of SC judges. The lawyers’
statement was apparently issued to “express our unwavering commitment and
wholehearted support to the principles of rule of law, independence of judiciary and
access to justice” in light of the allegations made by the IHC judges. “We endorse
the resolutions passed by the Islamabad High Court Bar Association, the Islamabad
Bar Association, the Sindh High Court Bar Association, the Pakistan Bar Council, the
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Bar Council and the Balochistan Bar Council to the extent that
they resolve to uphold the principle of independence of judiciary, express solidarity
with the six judges of the IHC, commend their courageous action and demand
appropriate action to uphold such principles,” it said.

The statement noted that it was not the first time that such allegations had been
raised. It said that Justice (Retired) Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui had raised “similar
allegations and was consequently, unceremoniously removed from office, without
following due process”. Referring to the SC’s recent verdict on the murder trial of
former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the statement said that it was an
“indictment of the historic role played by the judiciary in Pakistan and it is
commendable to the extent of the sober acknowledgement therein that public
perception of judicial independence has been prejudiced”. The Supreme Court had
said that former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was not given a fair trial in a
murder case in 1979. Responding to a presidential reference filed 12 years ago,
Chief Justice Qazi Faez Isa said, “We didn’t find that the fair trial and due process
requirements were met.”

This is not the first time or the last time that such allegations of interference against the ISI are being raised. The judiciary in Pakistan has taken a stand this time around that the intelligence agencies have gone too far. The scale and intensity of the interference is quite deep and shows the malaise that affects Pakistani polity today.

The challenge for the judiciary is going to be to maintain the pressure on the
government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif. Any inquiry commission that is set upby the government will in all likelihood end up brushing the entire issue under the carpet. After all, the incumbent PM owes his job to the deep state in Pakistan.
Despite this it is worth raising a hand in salute to the judiciary in Pakistan for at least trying!

About the Author
Sergio Restelli is an Italian political advisor, author and geopolitical expert. He served in the Craxi government in the 1990's as the special assistant to the deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Justice Martelli and worked closely with anti-mafia magistrates Falcone and Borsellino. Over the past decades he has been involved in peace building and diplomacy efforts in the Middle East and North Africa. He has written for Geopolitica and several Italian online and print media. In 2020 his first fiction "Napoli sta bene" was published.