The Friday Times: Najam Sethi’s Editorial
A whispering campaign of financial wrong-doing by Arsalan Mohammad Chaudhry, son of Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, Chief Justice of Pakistan, has blown up into a political scandal that is threatening to fracture the strained relationships between the judiciary on the one hand and the government and military on the other. Its consequences could derail the political system in the run up to general elections.
Details of the alleged financial misdemeanours of Chaudhry Jr are coming by fits and starts from various media sources which claim to have seen incontrovertible documentary evidence to indict him. It is speculated that the actual evidence will soon be made public. The man at the centre of the storm is Riaz Malik, a tycoon who is, curiously enough, close to both President Asif Zardari and the military. The documents will purport to show that Chaudhry Jr partook of Mr Malik’s hospitality by Rs 350 million plus from 2010-12. The sinister implication is that such largesse was bestowed on Chaudhry Jr in order to influence the outcome of criminal cases pending before the Supreme Court against Mr Malik and his businesses. Detractors of the CJP argue that the father is now tainted because it is inconceivable that he was unaware of his son’s sudden rise in fortune because the family (wife and other offspring) also partook of the visibly free and lavish hospitality on offer. Friends of the CJP say the sins of the son should not be visited on the father.
The CJP has taken suo motu note of the matter and called his son and Mr Malik to court to explain their conduct. But controversy has been sparked at the outset by his decision to head a three-member bench to look into the case. The code of conduct of judges as detailed by the CJP himself in 2009 clearly states that a judge may not hear cases in which a potential conflict of interest may arise. But the CJP has stated that this is a special case requiring his personal adjudication. He has quoted the Quran to prove that a father is not responsible for the acts of omission and commission of his adult children. Consequently, the debate has veered away from the cold corpus of law and constitution to passionate interpretations of the Quran and Hadith and the CJP has placed a copy of the Quran on his desk in order to shape public perception of the rights and wrongs of the case.
While we await presentation of concrete evidence of Chaudhry Jr’s corruption, he has denied the charges in public but privately and qualifiedly accepted some of them before a close media friend. Who will be the potential losers and winners in this case?
The military has been smarting from the CJP hard questions of the role of their agencies in strife torn FATA and Balochistan where hundreds have died or disappeared. The military is not used to civilian or judicial accountability. The generals would like the CJP to back off or get lost. They would have a powerful motive to embarrass and weaken the CJP or provoke a revolt against him inside and outside the SC via exactly such a scandal through the aegis of Mr Malik.
The PPP government would also like to see the back of the CJP. The regime has been hounded by the judges for the last three years and risks losing its president and prime minister at the altar of SC interventionism. Clashes between the government and the SC erupt every week. If any such clash were to lead to constitutional gridlock – the chances of which are rising – the military would get an excuse to sweep aside both of them in the “national interest”. Certainly, by comparison with the pristine and secretive military, civilians in the executive, judiciary and opposition are reeking of bad odour in light of the current scandal.
Currently, the media and opposition are arrayed behind the CJP. All manner of constitutional and political somersaults are being made in order to heap blame on the PPP and military and belittle the charges against Chaudhry Jr and delink them from the CJP. In a sense, supporters of the CJP have launched a pre-emptive strike to protect their chief from the fallout of the evidence against his son when it surfaces. But there is no certainty they will succeed in their mission once the documents see the light of day and shock people into asking hard questions. At the very least one can expect the media to be divided on questions of culpability. More significantly, the independent elected Bar may lean against the CJP. And if the SC displays division in its own ranks, matters may come to a head. The CJP and SC are likely to be tainted and weakened by this scandal, not least because they have been riding the high horse of morality and populism for so long and will now be expected to measure themselves by the same yardstick.