ISLAMABAD: When a prime minister is issued a contempt notice, he ought to pick his counsel carefully. In a move that indicates willingness to seek reconciliation with an increasingly assertive judiciary, the government decided on Tuesday to field respected pro-judiciary lawyer Chaudhry Aitzaz Ahsan.
The selection of Barrister Ahsan as the defence counsel for Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani when he appears in court tomorrow (Thursday) suggests a move to lower tensions that have been rising since the court accused the prime minister of “not being honest to his oath” last week.
The decision to engage Aitzaz was announced after he met the premier in Islamabad.
What the premier’s facing
On Monday, a seven-judge bench issued a contempt of court notice to Prime Minister Gilani and asked him to personally appear before the court to explain his government’s failure to implement its earlier verdict to reopen cases closed under the controversial National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO).
“Aitzaz Ahsan will appear before the court along with the prime minister on January 19 (tomorrow),” said a two-paragraph handout issued by the premier’s media office after the meeting, although it did not give any further details.
Thousands of cases were shelved under the 2007 NRO deal between former military ruler Pervez Musharraf and slain leader of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Benazir Bhutto.
Top leaders from the PPP and its allied groups – Pakistan Muslim League-Q (PML-Q), Awami National Party (ANP), Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and lawmakers from the tribal areas – huddled in Islamabad immediately after the court order and decided that Gilani should abide by it.
Ahsan’s chequered history with PPP
Ahsan has an accomplished record of having worked for the judiciary’s independence. The barrister was at the forefront of the struggle for the independence of the judiciary after Musharraf sacked almost 60 judges of higher courts in 2007, including Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry.
His relationship with the PPP, however, has been a shaky one. His lead role in the street agitation by the legal fraternity as well as a successful legal battle to seek the restoration of the chief justice and his peers earned him the displeasure of President Asif Ali Zardari as well as other PPP leaders.
In February 2009, PPP Secretary General Jahangir Badar expelled Ahsan disgracefully from the party’s decision-making Central Executive Committee (CEC), though his basic membership remained intact – as, apparently, did his loyalty.
However, he seemed to have been taken out the president’s bad books last December at the fourth death anniversary of Benazir Bhutto, when President Zardari invited him to address a gathering of party workers after he had delivered his own speech.
Since then, Ahsan has reportedly played a key role for the PPP in behind-the-scene negotiations with the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) to evolve a consensus for holding fresh parliamentary polls later this year amid a standoff between the civilian and military leadership.
Also significant is that Ahsan, in the recent past, has been advising the government to write a letter to the Swiss authorities for reopening dropped graft cases against the president. Ahsan argued such a move would have little adverse impact, as President Zardari has immunity under national laws and international conventions.
Rehman Malik’s statement
Experts believe that by choosing Barrister Ahsan as his counsel, Prime Minister Gilani has effectively delivered a message of goodwill to the Supreme Court. Interior Minister Rehman Malik indicated the same on Tuesday, saying the prime minister personally appearing before the apex court would help “remove misunderstandings”. Talking to media at the Parliament House, he said the government always respected the apex court and implemented its decisions.
(Read: What the prime minister should do now)
(WITH ADDITIONAL INPUT FROM APP)
Published in The Express Tribune, January 18th, 2012.