The Supreme Court Bar Association of Pakistan (SCBA) filed a constitutional petition on Thursday in the Supreme Court of Pakistan challenging the lifetime disqualification of members of Parliament under Article 62-1(f) of the Constitution. In 2018, the Supreme Court had disqualified for life former Prime Minister Mian Mohammad Nawaz Sharif under the said article, ruling him not to be “sadiq and ameen” (truthful and trustworthy), and sent him home.
The current Prime Minister, Imran Khan, and a party cohort, Jehangir Tareen, also faced similar cases at the time, but in what was seen as a conspiracy to bring Imran Khan to power, he was declared “sadiq and ameen” but his senior party member Tareen was disqualified to show impartiality and evenhandedness of the law.
The petition has challenged the constitutionality of lifetime disqualifications under the original (suo motu) jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, as in doing so, the court acts as a trial court but without the right to appeal, thereby depriving the members of their fundamental right to a fair trial and due process of law. The petition also questions the Supreme Court’s reading of lifetime punishment into Article 62-1(f), when it’s silent on the term.
Military's Disenchantment With Project Imran
Though this is an independent petition of the SCBA and the President of the SCBA, Ahsan Bhoon, the timing of this development is being seen as directly related to the alleged negotiations between Pakistan’s military establishment and former Prime Minister Mian Mohammad Nawaz Sharif (MNS). This is the latest development in a series of recent events that fit in with the narrative of the military’s disenchantment with its project Imran Khan, and its quest to find an alternative to him.
The petition is quite perfectly timed – with Imran Khan having become extremely unpopular, there’s a change in the political environment.
The judiciary appears aware of its loss of credibility after scandals of several judges broke, including former Chief Justice Saqib Nisar, for returning guilty verdicts against MNS either out of political motives or under blackmail from the country’s intelligence agencies.
It appears the wheels of change finally set in motion in autumn last year, when the feud over appointing a new chief of the ISI became public on 6 October. The Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) had unilaterally announced the name of the new Director-General of ISI (DGISI) after Imran Khan’s intransigence over signing the summary. Bhoon was elected president of the SCBA in October, too, and the first public statement after his election was with regard to filing such a petition. But he said he would choose an appropriate time to file it. The time seems to have come.
What Shahid Khaqan Abbasi Said
Will the petition be successful and serve as a final ground prep for the return of Sharif as a fourth-time Prime Minister? This was a question I put to Pakistan Muslim League (N)’s (PMLN) former Prime Minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, a couple of weeks ago, when the petition wasn’t filed yet. He said:
“I think the Supreme Court will strike down the lifetime bans: they are unnatural and in conflict with the human rights enshrined in the Constitution."
Significantly, he also thought that the current Chief Justice would want to do it before he left. This implies very high confidence in the PMLN that the petition will be decided in the favour of MNS within this month, since Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmad is retiring on 1 February 2022. He was confident that the removal of the lifetime bar by the Supreme Court would pave the way for MNS to be Prime Minister again. If Abbasi’s confidence is anything to go by, and the petition is indeed decided quickly, one should expect the tussle between Khan and Bajwa to end in a relatively fair and free election sometime this year, with MNS sweeping back into power once again.
Chairs, Sofas and 'Leaks': The Imran vs Army Arena
In the tussle, Imran Khan has been playing some really cheap shots. Towards the end of last year, he twice referred to Prophet Omar having fired his Army chief, without any context whatsoever. A couple of weeks ago, his office released a statement about a security briefing he and the Army chief took at the ISI headquarters, saying, “Qamar Javed Bajwa, Chief of the Army Staff, was also there.” Such language has never been used before.
On Wednesday, again in a first, Imran Khan’s office released a photo in which General Bajwa is uncomfortably seated in a straight-backed chair. In all previous photos, Bajwa was sat on a sofa. This made the Army chief the butt of jokes on Twitter, while serving officers said straight-backed chairs are offered to subordinates so that they sit straight, and that they had never seen such an image of an Army chief before.
And to rub it in, Imran Khan’s office issued another photo the next day with guests on sofas. This insult came on the heels of his outburst on live television against the Army chief when he said in a barely veiled threat that he would be more dangerous out of office, and that people knew his (the Army chief’s) reality.
The tussle has led to leaks and rumours, many deliberately put about to spook the other side. The Prime Minister’s side has leaked that Khan has signed and kept safe two documents: de-notification of General Bajwa and the dissolution of the Assembly (in readiness for any hanky panky by the general). The General’s side has leaked that it has in its safekeeping the no-confidence motion against the Prime Minister with the required number of signatures on it, and that it will mount a coup should the Prime Minister try to become too big for his boots, ie, fire General Bajwa and appoint Faiz Hameed the next Chief of Army Staff (it being an open secret now that this is Khan and Hameed’s ultimate bid).
Are Foreign Powers Also Involved?
The rupture between Imran Khan and General Bajwa indicates a complete lack of trust between them. But unfortunately, for General Bajwa, there is also a complete lack of trust between him and Nawaz Sharif, who is the only viable alternative to the current state of affairs.
Much as he might like, it is not considered practical in any quarter, including in General Bajwa’s own constituency, to replace the current hybrid setup with a similar one. Hence the clear signs of ongoing alleged negotiations between him and Nawaz Sharif.
The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) disastrous performance in both Khyber Pakhtunkwa local bodies elections and the Punjab cantonment board elections is seen as one of the latest confidence-building measures (CBMs) from Bajwa to assure Sharif that going forward, he is serious about non-interference. According to reliable sources, Nawaz Sharif is also said to have made a decision on PTI’s seven-year-old foreign funding case in the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), a condition for Bajwa to demonstrate neutrality. The ECP has suddenly released a damning report from its scrutiny committee on Imran Khan and the PTI.
A Two-Way Street
So, though obvious markers of progress in negotiations between the military and Sharif are visible, together with how it is irking Imran Khan, it begs the question as to whether the negotiations are purely bilateral or whether any foreign powers are involved. It is widely believed that Saudi or Chinese guarantees to both sides are involved.
Clearly, Sharif would want a guarantee that he would not be thrown in jail upon landing in Pakistan and would be able to participate in a fair and free election, and Bajwa would want to be assured that he would have safe passage, maybe even another extension, and not face a treason trial at the hands of Sharif. Perhaps this is the quid pro quo some regional powers will ensure, at least for some time. But once a couple of years have passed, all bets will be off, as the history of the country indicates.
(Gul Bukhari is a Pakistani journalist and rights activist. She tweets @GulBukhari. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quintneither endorses nor is responsible for them.)