The first hearing on the matter did not bode well for the new contempt law, with Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry observing on Monday that parliament does not have the power to curtail the court’s jurisdiction.
Requests for a full bench, and more time were also turned down.
Heading a five-member bench that began hearing petitions challenging the recent adoption of a contentious contempt of court law, the chief justice observed that parliament cannot go beyond Article 204 of the Constitution, which deals with the topic of contempt. Petitioners, who number no less than 27 in total, believe that the new law slashes the courts’ powers and allows criticism of the higher judiciary. Some have asked for amendments to the new law.
The chief justice also questioned the urgency of passing the new law – which took less than a week from its initial introduction to its signing into law by the president. The new law was bulldozed through both houses of parliament shortly after Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf took office and was sent notices by the apex court to implement its orders on the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) case. The same case saw Yousaf Raza Gilani disqualified from premiership and membership of the National Assembly for contempt.
During the proceedings, Justice Jawwad S Khawaja observed that Article 204 empowered the court to frame the rules on this matter, not the executive. The larger bench also expressed its surprise over the omission of the word “court” in the new law, which effectively means that contempt of court will no longer be an offence, they observed.
Justice Tassadaq Jilani, while referring to the new law, said that the time frame to file an appeal against a court decision has been extended from 30 days to 60 days. However, he pointed out, while an appeal is the right of a convict, it is a controlled right.
On the point of immunity, the top judge of the country remarked that there is no blanket immunity cover for anyone in the Constitution. Justice Jilani questioned why there was a need for a new law when Article 248 already talks about immunity for public office holders to the extent of their performance of official duties. Chief Justice Chaudhry made it clear that the immunity is only to the extent of official acts and there is no blanket immunity for anyone.
The observations made by top judge of the country are of particular significance as the incumbent government of Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) claims absolute immunity for President Asif Ali Zardari in the NRO implementation case – wherein the apex court is asking the government to write a letter to Swiss authorities to reopen graft cases against the president. The alleged graft was committed at a time the PPP co-chairman was not the president.
Govt seeks time, full bench
The counsel for the federal government, Abdul Shakoor Paracha, sought time from the Supreme Court, arguing that the case if of high importance. Paracha told the court that he was approached by the federal government just a day before (Sunday), and said that he required some time to study the case and take further directives from the government. He also asked for the matter to be heard by a full bench of the Supreme Court.
Attorney-General Irfan Qadir, too, made a similar request – terming the case a first-of-its-kind – and asked for two weeks.
The court turned down the requests, with Chief Justice Chaudhry saying that the case was not a first-of-its-kind. He recalled that a similar case in 1996 was decided by a four-member bench headed by former chief justice Ajmal Mian.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 24th, 2012.