The NRO implementation case before the Supreme Court (SC) has held the country in thrall for months now. Every hearing arouses intense speculation, expectations, drama.
Yesterday’s hearing, at which Prime Minister (PM) Raja Pervez Ashraf appeared, however, probably could be considered a top contender for a prize. What happened in court came as a complete surprise to just about everyone. All the reports and analyses in the media preceding the hearing regarding the likely course to be adopted by the government turned out to be misplaced. Most of these centred round the strong opinion within the PPP’s top ranks of not writing the letter to the Swiss authorities, in line with the stance adopted by former PM Yousaf Raza Gilani, which led to his departure from office.
As it turned out however, the government agreed before the court to write a letter to the Swiss Attorney General (AG) withdrawing the withdrawal letter written by then Pakistan’s AG Justice (retd) Malik Abdul Qayyum. This surprising turn of events perhaps owes a great deal to the change towards flexibility and finding a way out of the impasse by both the court as well as the government at the last hearing or two. PM Raja Pervez Ashraf’s request to the court for one month’s time for consultations was denied by the court on the ground that enough ‘consultation’ had already taken place and it was now time to implement the court’s judgement.
The SC ordered Federal Law Minister Farooq Naek to draft the letter and submit it to the court. The hearing was postponed till September 25. The SC exempted the PM from further appearances. The head of the SC bench, Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, underlined that the court was not inclined to dictate the wording of the letter and was at the same time cognizant of the respect of the country and its sitting president.
The question in everyone’s mind obviously is that if this was to be the eventual denouement, why did the government drag the affair for so long and in the process sacrifice its unanimously elected PM who still enjoyed a majority in parliament? The dismissal of an incumbent PM by the judiciary on a charge of contempt of court was in itself a first for our jurisprudence, or arguably jurisprudence anywhere. So what were the considerations of the government for this seeming u-turn? Without letting the imagination run away, what seems reasonable is as follows.
The government wanted to end the air of uncertainty destabilising the polity (with negative effects on the economy and all else) in the run up to the coming elections. It wanted to deliver a telling blow to all those forces hoping to see the back of the government by using the judiciary as a battering ram. This was reiterated in Federal Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira’s remarks to the media after the hearing.
Part of the government’s calculations may also have relied on the case becoming time-barred under Swiss law, as has been speculated in our media over time, although some legal luminaries do not agree with this contention, arguing that there is no such statute of limitations in a case of this kind under Swiss law. Before the present turn of events, one argument doing the rounds was that the Swiss judicial authorities had said on record that under international, Swiss and Pakistani law, a sitting president enjoys immunity so long as he holds office. Second, that without substantive new evidence, it was unlikely the Swiss authorities would reopen the case.
Of course these arguments and considerations will now have to be weighed in the light of the government’s concession to writing a letter. Depending on what it says, including the possibility that the president’s immunity may be part of its wording, the ball then would squarely lie in the court of the Swiss AG and judicial authorities.
Whatever happens in Switzerland after the letter is written, there is little doubt that those who were extremely concerned about the deleterious effects of the stand-off between the government and judiciary and its possible impact on our future, would have heaved a sigh of relief. How permanent that feeling of relief may be remains to be seen. For the moment at least, a debilitating confrontation between two pillars of the state has been seemingly defused, an outcome welcomed by all who hold the interests of the country paramount.