Pakistan: Top Court says apprehensions of political misuse dictated decision not to live-stream NAB amendments case

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The Supreme Court on Saturday said its decision to not live-stream the proceedings in the case of intra-court appeals (ICAs) moved by the federal government against the court’s September 15 majority judgment striking down amendments to the anti-graft laws was due to concerns about the facility being politically misused.

In 2022, amendments were made to the country’s accountability laws by the then-Pakistan Democratic Movement-led government. The amendments made several changes to the National Accountability Ordinance (NAO) 1999, including reducing the term of the NAB chairman and prosecutor general to three years, limiting NAB’s jurisdiction to cases involving over Rs500 million, and transferring all pending inquiries, investigations, and trials to the relevant authorities.

Imran had subsequently filed a petition in 2022 challenging the amendments, claiming that the changes to the NAB law were made to benefit the influential accused persons and legitimise corruption.

The petition had pleaded that the fresh amendments tend to scrap corruption cases against the president, prime minister, chief ministers and ministers and provide an opportunity to the convicted public office-holders to get their convictions undone.

The SC had reserved its verdict in the case on September 5, 2023, after 53 hearings, with the members of a three-judge bench debating the power of parliament to enact legislation with retrospective effect. The apex court had subsequently on Sept 15 ordered the restoration of corruption cases against public office holders that were withdrawn after amendments were made to the country’s accountability laws and declared Imran’s plea to be maintainable.

However, Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Qazi Faez Isa had dropped hints in an October 31, 2023, hearing as the apex court took up intra-court appeals (ICA) against the Sept 15 judgement that since earlier proceedings did not to satisfy the requirements of the Supreme Court (Practice and Procedure) Act 2023, proceedings in the matter could be started afresh if the counsel managed to “make a solid case” for the same.

Though it refused to stay proceedings in corruption cases underway in accountability courts, the apex court restrained trial courts from announcing their final orders till the next hearing of the appeals in the matter.

The apex court was seized with a number of ICAs moved by the federal government as well as by a private citizen Zuhair Ahmed Siddiqui, who was an accused in a corruption case but not a party to the challenges to the NAB amendments case.

The larger bench also issued notices to respondent Imran with a direction that since he was incarcerated, the notice should be delivered to him through the jail superintendent concerned.

On May 14, CJP Isa had instructed the government to ensure video link arrangements for Imran to join proceedings of a case about changes to the country’s accountability laws and give his arguments.

However, the May 16 hearing turned out anticlimactic as Imran appeared via video link but did not get a chance to speak as a petitioner in the matter. The hearing was not broadcast live while the May 14 hearing was. The reason was left unclear at the time.

In the May 30 hearing, the bench — headed by CJP Isa and including Justices Athar Minallah, Aminuddin Khan, Jamal Khan Mandokhail, and Hasan Azhar Rizvi — decided in a 4:1 ruling not to stream the proceedings live. The bench took a short break to mull whether to live-stream the hearing and in a majority 4:1 decision, chose not to, with Justice Minallah dissenting from it.

The decision was taken on an application by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa advocate general (AG) to live-stream the proceedings.

In its written order released today explaining the decision, the court said: “In live-streaming cases, there is always a possibility that the facility may be misused or exploited for ulterior or personal purposes. There is also the possibility of grandstanding while the nation watches. This court must be vigilant against such misuse and/or exploitation.”

It further added: “When the head of a political party wants to be heard, who is not an advocate of this court, there is a real probability that these hearings may be used for political purposes and point scoring and in respect of matters which do not concern these appeals. This was a paramount consideration when we had dismissed the application. And, our apprehension proved correct later in the day.”

The order explained that when Imran spoke in the Thursday hearing, he also “mentioned other cases, the general elections held on February 8, a commission of inquiry and his incarceration”.

The order said that all such matters had “nothing to do” with the subject matter of the appeals.

“This cannot be permitted as it would thwart the proper administration of justice. Commenting on matters not under consideration may affect public perception. The rights of those who are not before us, including their fundamental right to fair trial and due process, may also be affected.”

Addressing the KP AG’s application, the order said the only reason given in its support was that the decision to not live-stream the NAB case proceedings amounted to “discrimination”.

“However, the reason is factually incorrect because only a very few cases have been/are live-streamed. There are also instances of cases which were initially live-streamed but in the interest of justice, it was discontinued. The application also does not cite any law in its support,” the order said.

The court explained that its decision to live-stream some proceedings depended on them being a matter of public interest and 40 hearings had so far been broadcast live.

“This initiative was taken to provide to the general public and lawyers throughout Pakistan direct access to the courtroom in respect of matters of public interest. The objective was manifold, including: educational, openness and transparency, forestalling misreporting or onesided reporting, facilitating lawyers on how best to articulate their propositions, how to effectively conduct cases and how to behave in the courtroom.”

However, the court noted that “the public has shown little or no interest in the matter of whether the amendments made to the National Accountability Ordinance, 1999, are sustainable on the constitutional plane, nonetheless this court, on its own volition was live-streaming the hearing of these appeals.”

The order also pointed out that Imran had not attended 53 hearings of the case and neither he nor the KP government had requested for the proceedings to be broadcast live.

It also pointed out that Imran was now being represented by his legal team and thus there was no need for him to be provided with the video link facility. “However, this facility is being continued,” the order added.

It continued that the KP government was also not a party in the appeals and the advocate general had not explained “why the sudden interest, or desire, for live-streaming, when his government did not join the hearings … let alone make a similar request when this court was hearing the petition.”

“In conclusion, we would like to add that while a request to live broadcast or live-stream may be submitted, and may also be objected to, it is clarified that this, as matters presently stand, is in the exclusive domain of this court,” the order concluded.__dawn.com.pk