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As videotape scandal blows up in Pakistan, critics say judiciary’s independence ‘eroded’

Maryam Nawaz Sharif has alleged the judiciary acted under coercion to convict her father. ThePrint takes a look at how this might unfold.

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New Delhi: Pakistan’s broken systems have been on display once again over the last week after Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN) president Maryam Nawaz Sharif released a controversial videotape alleging that the country’s judiciary acted under coercion to convict her father.

In the video, accountability judge Arshad Malik can be seen allegedly admitting that he was “blackmailed” into delivering a verdict against former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a corruption case in December last year.

Although an admission of a judge acting under duress should force the authorities to reopen the case against the former prime minister, analysts contend that the independence of the Pakistani judiciary has been eroded to the extent that such a scenario remains unlikely.

‘Blackmailed into convicting Nawaz’

Maryam stirred Pakistan’s entire political and judicial system last week when at a press conference she released a video featuring Pakistan’s National Accountability Bureau (NAB) judge Arshad Malik admitting that he was blackmailed into giving the verdict against her father Nawaz Sharif.

The particular verdict in question is the Al-Azizia judgment in which Sharif was found guilty of corruption charges and sentenced to seven years in prison.

In the video, Malik can be seen telling a sympathiser of the PMLN that there was no evidence of corruption, money laundering or kickbacks against Sharif, but he was forced to rule against him.

At one point, Malik says that “invisible forces” have a video of him of a very personal nature and if it were to be released, he would not be able to “sustain the pressure” and might even “commit suicide”.

Claiming that she’s in possession of more such tapes that prove her father was convicted in a fraudulent trial, Maryam has demanded that Sharif be released.

Following her press conference, Malik released a statement refuting Maryam’s claims.

“I want to clarify it there was neither any direct or indirect pressure on me nor was there any greed. I decided all these cases on the basis of evidence,” Malik said in the statement.

However, he has not made a single public appearance since.

Also read: From Jinnah’s family to Nawaz Sharif: Pakistan thinks everyone is a foreign agent

Legitimacy of verdict in question

The videotape scandal has put the legitimacy of Nawaz’s conviction under scrutiny.

Pakistani legal experts argue that a judge admitting to have been blackmailed into giving a verdict against a prime minister is highly questionable.

“The fact that he has admitted to being under duress completely vitiates a trial. The judgment is now under question,” Ahmad Rafay Alam, lawyer and Yale World Fellow, told ThePrint.

However, two separate issues related to the videotape have also been highlighted.

“There is an issue about privacy, because Arshad Malik was recorded in a video without his consent. And the evidential value of the tapes are subject to forensic tests,” said Yasser Latif Hamdani, advocate of High Courts of Pakistan.

“But my own understanding is that these tapes are genuine. Both the government and PMLN have independently conducted forensic tests,” said Hamdani.

ThePrint could not independently verify this claim.

Maryam’s critics have argued she should have taken the tapes to the judiciary and not released them through a press conference.

Hamdani contends that her prime motive behind releasing these videotapes was political and not legal. And she seems to have succeeded in doing that.

“The leaked video is a vindication of Nawaz Sharif and shows how judiciary is manipulated behind the scenes to get decisions desired by the military,” Taha Siddiqui, exiled Pakistani journalist and a professor of journalism at French institute SciencesPo, told ThePrint.

Response of Imran Khan government, judiciary

The Imran Khan government in Pakistan initially said that it would facilitate an investigation looking into the legitimacy of these tapes. But it soon backed down, deferring the case to the judiciary.

Meanwhile, a major crackdown was launched against various media organisations for airing the “unedited version” of Maryam’s press conference.

“Right now the government in connivance with the military is trying to silence the media. It took channels off air and is asking them to even mute statements by political opposition on live TV when there is talk of the video,” said Siddiqui.

The scandal also seems to have also rattled the Pakistani judicial establishment.

“Judiciary has been shaken by these revelations,” said Hamdani.

Following Maryam’s press conference, the Acting Chief Justice of the Islamabad High Court had a 45-minute meeting with the Pakistan Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa. Their discussions reportedly centered on the videotape scandal and Malik.

The NAB comes under the administrative supervision of the Islamabad High Court.

Legal experts argue that there are potentially two options before the judiciary now.

“Either the Islamabad High Court can take the matter forward or the Supreme Court can initiate proceedings suo moto,” remarked Hamdani.

The precedent

After the scandal broke out, the Pakistani media highlighted a twenty-two-old legal precedent, possibly relevant to this case.

In 1997, Supreme Court Justice Malik Muhammad Qayyum had convicted former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto and ex-president Asif Ali Zardari in a corruption case. But it was later found that Qayyum had colluded with the executive and the ruling was overturned.

However, legal experts suggested that a repeat of that outcome is unlikely given the current state of judicial independence in Pakistan.

Also read: Pakistanis happily convert girls to Islam but love marriage faces honour killing axe

‘Erosion’ of judicial independence in Pakistan

Back in 2007, Pakistan saw a lawyers’ movement led by Iktikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, for restoration of judicial independence in the country.

“After 2007, judiciary became much more important and at some points completely independent,’ said Hamdani.

But the events of the past couple of years seem to have completely overturned that hard-fought judicial independence.

“Nothing of that movement survives today. It is very different powers at work now. Their independence is constantly under attack,” noted Ahmad Rafay Alam.

“Last year another judge came forward and spoke about how ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) even manipulates which bench will have what judge to control the outcomes of political cases,” said Taha Siddiqui.

He was referring to Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui, who was sacked in 2018 after he made the accusations.

“I don’t see anything happening in the Nawaz case,” said Alam.

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