Contempt for the rest

Contempt of Court Act grants an exemption for Prime Minister from the constitutional law that governs the country.

Nadir Hassan July 19, 2012

There are few who would disagree that Pakistan has a dual justice system. Those who have the means to escape accountability for their flagrant law-breaking do so with obscene flagrancy. Paying taxes is a punishment that is reserved only for those who are paid a salary and thus have their share to the national exchequer cut off at the source. If you are lucky enough to own a business or have connections with those who matter, then taxation is an alien concept that you may have heard of, something akin to the Loch Ness Monster but not something that you have ever actually experienced in the flesh.

All right-thinking people obviously condemn the ease with which the most wealthy and powerful among us get away with flouting the law. As bad as being able to get away with not paying your burden of tax revenue may be, what truly stings is that this state of affairs breeds inequality, with a different rules set for people who can afford to ignore the law.

How, then, is the recent contempt of judiciary bill passed by the National Assembly any less unfair than the apartheid-like tax system prevalent in the country? You have a group of lawmakers who have decided that their leaders deserve an exemption from the constitutional law that governs the country. Sure, like those who dodge their taxes, the parliamentarians have high-sounding reasons to explain why they believe an exception needs to be carved out of the law for themselves. Just like most industrialists say that they don’t pay taxes since giving money to such corrupt governments would be quite immoral, members of parliament argue that their leaders need to be protected from a judiciary drunk on its own power.

For the sake of argument, let’s concede that the Supreme Court exceeded its mandate in charging the prime minister with contempt of court. I happen to disagree with that contention since flouting an order of the judiciary should be somehow punishable. But, even if the Court erred, making a permanent law on the basis of one flawed judgment is always a bad idea. In order to protect future hypothetical heads of government from being kicked out by an indignant judiciary, the National Assembly has now given prime ministers carte blanche to ignore each and every verdict handed out by the Supreme Court. And if we look at the history of this country, leaders who consider themselves above the law of the land are far more prevalent than rogue Supreme Courts. These future leaders’ disdain for such trifles as Supreme Court verdicts have now been codified into law.

This same attitude, which says that the most powerful in the country need even further indemnity from the consequences of the law, is already written into the Constitution. The 1973 Constitution is a very fine document so long as you ignore all the exceptions written in it. We are guaranteed all our freedoms — so long as they don’t end up hurting the delicate feelings of the judiciary, the armed forces or those who are religiously sensitive. What these exceptions do is essentially nullify the constitutional protections that precede them. The right to free speech must include the right to offend sacred cows. Similarly, any punishment prescribed by law must be equally applicable to everyone or they just end up being a hammer with which to beat down those who do not have sufficient power or money. Even loyalists of the PPP, who feel hard done by, should not end up in a position where they defend a system that only provides justice to some.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 20th, 2012.