Almost every day in Pakistan has been an exciting one for more than a decade now.
Even by this standard, January 19, 2012 was exceptional. Only twice before has a Prime Minister been summoned to appear before the Supreme Court. The last time, he brought along his stormtroopers, and the judges had to flee. Today's appearance by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was fortunately without that kind of drama. He appeared in the Supreme Court after being summoned in a show cause notice issued under the Constitution and the Contempt of Court Ordinance 2003. He is charged with failing to write to the Swiss authorities against his leader, President Asif Ali Zardari, to recover $60 million that were allegedly paid to him and his wife Benazir Bhutto as commission by a Swiss company.
I had to appear as counsel before the Supreme Court in another case. I left home slightly late calculating that the Bench hearing the PM case would be occupied for a few hours. The Prime Minister's counsel, Aitzaz Ahsan, is one of Pakistan's best lawyers, and his ability to talk continuously as he weaves his argument is legendary.
I chose to drive on the Margalla Road which runs parallel to the beautiful Margalla Hills as it has the least number of traffic signals. But much before my destination, I ran into a severe traffic jam at least a kilometre long; this is unusual in Islamabad. I soon found out that it was due to a security check. There were three more.
At the Supreme Court, hundreds of media personnel were milling around outside the gates because they did not have a pass. The parking lot was overflowing; there were 20 OB vans, and a helicopter hovering overhead for security purposes was stirring things up.
The PM had been summoned by a seven member bench. The hearing was in Court Room 4 which has exactly 60 seats. You needed another pass to enter it. Army commandos holding sub-machine guns lined the corridors. Many senior lawyers and legislators who had shown up for the hearing were stranded outside the court room as they did not have a pass to enter it; the police and intelligence personnel manning the doors told me there was not even standing room when I told them I had to be inside because I had a case before the same Judge heading this bench.
I ended up watching the proceedings from the packed media gallery upstairs. I could see the judges and hear Aitzaz Ahsan's arguments. His request for a month long adjournment was vehemently resisted by the judges; eventually, he managed to get the hearing postponed to February 1 on the plea that he required time to review the case files and the record of the corruption case against the President and Benazir Bhutto. His main plea was that the PM was not guilty of contempt as he had no intention to ridicule the court or to disobey its orders; his contention was that it was the bona fide belief of the PM and the legal advice given to him that the President enjoyed constitutional immunity and he should thus not write to the Swiss authorities.
But the judges were not letting go that easily. One of them pointed out that it was the same Aitzaz Ahsan who has been saying in the media for the past two years that the government should write to the Swiss authorities as directed by the Supreme Court and it had no option in this respect. The Judge, with a touch of sarcasm, said he would leave this contradiction to be sorted out between Aitzaz and his client.
The hearing ended at 11 am, just in time for the court's tea-break. A few journalists rushed out of the small door to see the Prime Minister leave. I was one of the last to leave and ended up following Aitzaz Ahsan, who was accompanied by the PPP spokesman.
Outside, he decided to talk to the media with dozens of cameras focused on him. A mistake — more than 100 lawyers stood behind him on the building stairs raising slogans against him and the PM and in favour of the Chief Justice and the judiciary. The loudest slogan was ‘ghaddar hai, ghaddar hai (he is a traitor).'
Ironies never cease in Pakistan. Aitzaz was being called a traitor because he was the man who famously defended the Chief Justice when General Musharraf tried to replace him in March 2007. Now, he is on the other side.
This time around, Aitzaz has a more difficult case on his hands with a judiciary, particularly the Supreme Court judges, angry and annoyed with the government and the PM for flouting its orders and finding one excuse after another for non-compliance.
One judge pointed out today that the President's disregard for the court had gone to such an extent that when the court ordered one of his friends re-arrested on corruption charges so that he would complete his prison sentence, the President gave an amnesty of two and a half years to all the convicted prisoners in the whole country so that his friend would not spend a single day in prison. This is not how democracy is suppose to function, lamented the bench.
So the thrill in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan continues and the nation waits with excitement for the next hearing on February 1. But at least no one need worry about traffic jams on Marghalla Raod or not being able to get to the court on time as the bench has exempted the Prime Minister from appearing in person for it.
(The author is a lawyer based in Islamabad)