On a Tuesday morning, Rana Faizul Hasan waits at Sindh High Court for his petition to be taken up. He is indignant about target killings in Karachi. But this case is just one of the dozens of ‘public interest’ petitions that are filed on every issue under the sun in courts across Pakistan each day.
And, some people, like Hasan, who has filed at least 35 petitions on issues as varied as karo kari and Zulfiqar Mirza’s infamous statement, have made it a lifetime’s preoccupation. He is among the dozens of petitioners whose names pop up in newspaper court reports almost daily. The petitioners — who seem to have no connection to the case — file petitions on almost every current issue and name top officials as respondents.
According to Haji Gul Ahmad, who files petitions as the chief of a group called the Anjuman-e-Islami Islah-bara-e-Moashira, the trek to the courts dates to 2002. “We have filed 50 petitions so far. It started with a petition against the fake spiritual leaders who were ripping off people and duping women,” he told The Express Tribune. “We do this in public interest.”
Ahmad’s group, which was registered in 2005, has filed petitions on issues as varied as corruption in the Pakistan Railways, money laundering and the PNS Mehran Base attack.
The 20-member group says it funds its own work. Ahmad and Hasan don’t hire lawyers, which saves money. The major expense is typing, which costs 400 rupees at the most.
Since the petitions are usually related to hot news topics, the respondents are high-profile officials as a result of which they get major play in the media. This is more than helped along by the petitioners who take great pains to publicise their work and chum up with court reporters.
And the reporters “unfortunately” have to take the pro bono public litigation petitions seriously at times, according to Matiullah Jan, a senior Dawn News correspondent. “We have to because of the fact that every petition is being filed in the Supreme Court (SC) and you do not know how the court will react. We have to preempt a situation of missing the petition that the SC will then act on. So we have to be very careful.”
This does not mean that court reporters and their editors are not sceptical at times about such pro bono litigation. “The petitioners are looking for cheap publicity,” he remarked. For reporters, one way to combat this, on a case to case basis, is to try and understand the motivation. It is not just the content of the petition but also the conduct of the petitioner that are evaluated. Good reporters are cognisant of the possibility that the legal wrangling involves seeking attention of powerful parties and political groups and to bargain with them.
Thus, Matiullah Jan warns that pro bono litigation has become a very powerful public relations tool in the hands of lawyers, civil society, non-governmental organisations and political groups to seek publicity and manipulate the media’s agenda. Sometimes it is more to do with “publicity than public interest”, he wryly added. With the rapid growth in the number of media outlets, these petitioners are now getting more attention? Jan agrees. “There are 10 to 15 cameras at the SC entrance and reporters there. There’s also a permanent battery of reporters stationed there - which I think is illegal by the SC and the Supreme Court Bar Association.”
Not just the media are watching the moves these legal crusaders make. One widely held belief is that these petitioners and their ‘associations’ are funded by political parties or spy agencies. According to Hasan, “People do use this to blackmail others. But you have to defend your stance and face the consequences.” Ahmad denied this as well, saying his group sustains itself and does not accept external contributions. “Any such person who is not ‘serious’ is not taken seriously by the court either. The courts have acted against such people who have vested interests.”
Justice (retd) Wajihuddin Ahmed, a former SHC Chief Justice and Supreme Court judge, agreed that there are rumours about many of the petitioners’ interests and backgrounds. However, he noted that judges have acted against or admonished them. “For example, the Supreme Court acted against Maulvi Iqbal Haider [a prominent petitioner in Islamabad] and I believe his entry to the court premises was restricted.” However, he said this is difficult to establish until their backgrounds are brought to light.
Justice Ahmad said that without ‘condemning the petitioner’, the courts can also dismiss these petitions by saying that they were not filed by the relevant person. In 2004, Haji Gul Ahmad was warned by a SHC bench against filing “frivolous petitions”. According to a report published in Dawn, “Describing the petition as ‘baseless, misconceived and devoid of any substance’, the bench said in its order that the petitioner seemed to be an idle person who was not required to do any work. ‘He keeps filing frivolous petitions, wasting the court’s time,’ it observed, and warned him that heavy costs would be imposed in future for moving frivolous petitions.”
Despite this rebuke, Ahmad is undeterred. He feels that the court has taken up petitions, but “corrupt politicians” do not act on or delay implementation of the court’s orders. This isn’t his full-time job though. Ahmad says he runs an estate agency, provides acupressure services and also works in bookselling and translation.
Others have been warned as well, albeit for different reasons. Hasan says he has been warned to let peace prevail instead of going ahead with his petitions. His group, the United Human Rights Commission, has a 19-member central body and has been filing petitions since the early 2000s.
There is a flip side though. According to Justice Ahmad, these petitions also allow high court and supreme court judges to issue orders on cases that would normally fall in suo motu jurisdiction, even though he disagrees with the perception that SHC judges are not allowed to take suo motu notice of issues. “The case filed in the SHC, asking for direction to invoke the constitutional mechanism and call the army to Karachi, is one example. The court has shown caution and has only issued notices to the attorney-general and deputy attorney-general, etc.”
Ahmad is also convinced that these petitioners sometimes serve a good cause, because they take up key issues which cannot be sidestepped. “There are petitions which have brought about good judgments,” he said, giving his examples of the Habib Wahabul Khairi of the Al Jihad Trust matter. His petitions resulted in the 1996 Judges’ case verdict and others. Another motivation for petitioners, according to Justice Ahmed, is that the judgments can serve as a precedent.
The emotions that these petitioners invest in this litigation means that they are highly charged about the court’s response. “Some of these petitioners can actually become nasty,” the former chief justice recalled. “They stand in front of you as if they are ‘khudai faujdar’, that if you don’t entertain their petitions you have wronged them and the country.” In review petitions particularly, they will cast all sorts of aspersions on judges and imply that they do not deserve their positions, he added. “In one review petition I saw in the Supreme Court, there were all sorts of scandalous remarks about the judges!” Needless to say, these crusaders are out to win.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 6th, 2011.