Prime Minister in court

Prime Minister in court

Prime Minister (PM) Raja Pervez Ashraf accompanied by PPP leaders and coalition partners appeared before the Supreme Court (SC) in response to a notice issued to him in the NRO implementation case.

The hearing that lasted for 60 minutes ended with the PM given three weeks time to consider writing that letter to the Swiss authorities to reopen the graft cases against President Asif Ali Zardari. The atmosphere in Court Room 2 where the PM presented himself before the five-member bench of the SC hearing the case remained sober and calm. Exercising restraint, both the judiciary and the executive not only showed respect to each other but also agreed to try and find a middle way out of this quandary. The PM had initially sought four to six weeks time to acquaint himself with the legal aspects of the case.

Partially granting his request, the court postponed the case until September 18. The government’s respectful and restrained demeanour towards the judiciary has removed the fear of a constitutional deadlock that might have been costly for the government and the democratic system.The PM’s appearance in court had been heavily debated within the PPP leadership and among the coalition partners in the Presidency right till Sunday night. A majority of the ruling coalition wanted the PM to avoid the hearing, including the former Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, but President Zardari and the Law Minister Farooq H Naek saw wisdom in the PM’s appearance in court in order to try and find a ‘middle’ way solution.

Towards this end, there is speculation that the government might consider writing a letter to the Swiss authorities seeking their stance on the presidential immunity issue, which may go in favour of the government since the Swiss authorities have repeatedly said, including on our media, that the president enjoys immunity under our, Swiss and international law, and in any case a closed case could not be reopened under Swiss law without substantive new evidence, which is not to be had for love or money. A detailed reply from the Swiss authorities along these lines may restrict the SC from proceeding any further in this case, hence bringing the NRO saga to conclusion.

Another speculation doing the rounds is that the case is by now time-barred since the limit for reopening the case expired on August 22. However, legal opinion is divided over this expiry issue, since Article 97(b) of the Criminal Procedure Code of Switzerland could lend itself to various interpretations, including a 15-year limit that would not expire till September 2012. Only time will tell what eventual course the government and the judiciary will take to bring the country out of an impasse that is neither doing any good to an embattled country nor setting a healthy precedent for the future.

Sending a PM home was not a small thing, especially for a country that has gained its democratic footing after a long, tough and persistent struggle, losing some of its finest leaders in the process. No more is the NRO implementation case seen as a purely legal matter. Even in legal circles hitherto supporting the judiciary to the hilt, opinion is veering towards criticism of the judiciary’s ‘activism’ and judicial restraint is being advised. This is doing little for the stature, respect and dignity of the judiciary.

The worst case scenario could have led to anti-democratic forces taking advantage of the situation but the maturity shown by the government and increasingly the restraint creeping into the SC bench’s approach raises hopes that both sides will indeed seek a middle path that does not damage the reputation and standing of either while bringing relief to an already tense and crisis-ridden country. – Dailytimes