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An Opportunist Journalist in the Judge's Robes: Justice for Sale

An Opportunist Journalist in the Judge's Robes: Justice for Sale

By Manahil Jaffer

An independent judiciary remains a prerequisite for a functional democracy. Judiciary serves as an unbiased adjudicator, that ensures that the rule of law is upheld and individual rights are preserved. However, Pakistan's judiciary seems to have a tainted past. Frequently it has been seen trying to maintain its independence from the powerful executive and military establishment. This duel continues even today, with shady nominations of judges reflecting the incessant political influence and meddling in the institution. Incidentally, Pakistan’s judiciary sits as the third most corrupt institution domestically. Here's the rub: according to a report by Transparency International, Pakistan scores a dismal 31 on the Corruption Perception Index, ranking 124th out of 180 countries. This pervasive culture of corruption seeps into all institutions, with the judiciary topping the charts. A study by the World Justice Project has found that only 32% of Pakistanis possess faith in the judicial system's ability to deliver fair and impartial rulings.

In Pakistan, the scales of justice are perilously balanced. Justice Babar Sattar, a former journalist turned judge, exemplifies this disparity. His appointment to the Islamabad High Court raises eyebrows, not for his legal acumen, but for the murmurs of political influence that cling to him like a cobweb. Is Justice Sattar a success of meritocracy, or is he a symbol of a greater problem - a court corrupted by political maneuvering?
The Ideal vs. The Reality

Pakistan's constitution mandates an independent judiciary, with Article 175A detailing the process of appointing judges. This structure prioritizes quality, experience, and the advice of a powerful judicial commission. However, the truth frequently falls short of the ideal.
The wounds of martial law regimes continue to mark the judiciary's independence. The establishment direct authority over the judiciary throughout such turbulent times undermined court’s ability to act as checks on executive power. Even during democratic periods, the executive branch applies pressure on the courts through tactics such as selective transfers and threats of probes. Another concern is the lack of transparency in judicial selections. Tainted nomination of judges to Islamabad High Court represents only the tip of the iceberg. The secrecy surrounding the selection procedure promotes accusations of political favors and backroom deals.
A case in point is the appointment of Justice Babar Sattar to the Islamabad High Court that has sparked controversy due to his background and shady profile. Firstly, reports claim Justice Sattar and his family hold dual citizenship of United States of America since 2005, a detail missing from his official documents until recently leaked information went public. His dual citizenship with the US, creates a very alarming conflict of loyalty, contradicting the oath he took as a judge of Pakistan, where he swore to uphold the interests of Pakistan. This raises ethical concerns about his loyalty, as he would be sworn to uphold the interests of the US while being a judge of Pakistan. Justice? A JOKE!

There’s more to the story. With his rise in judicial career, there has been a corresponding rise in his family’s business. His family's international school business (Silver Oaks International School) flourished after his appointment expanding 60 more branches and ballooing into Dubai as well. Financial concerns cloud his past. Before becoming a judge, Justice Sattar received significant income from multiple sources. These include salaries from a school board (PTA Council), hefty sums from various telecommunication companies, and involvement in a legal firm (Ajurius Advocate and Corporate Council). Hefty salaries for judges are intended to ensure immunity from external influences, but the reality seems to be far from ideal.

The most concerning allegation relates to a potential conflict of interest. His past association with the legal firm (where controversial figures Emaan Mazari and Zeenab Janjua were also partners) is peculiarly problematic. The principle of conflict of interest dictates a judge should not preside over cases involving parties previously represented by their former firms. However, such concerns seem to be disregarded, as Justice Sattar still considers telecommunication sector cases.

The Perils of Political Pawns
The ramifications can be extensive when political motivations are detected in a judge’s nomination for High Court or Apex Court. A strong public perception of judges' loyalty to political interests undermines public confidence in the judiciary, which is essential to a functioning democracy. This ultimately makes people feel helpless and cynical, thus weakening the legal system, as a whole.
The phenomenon of "judicial activism" poses an additional risk. Judges, especially those appointed with political agendas, often interpret the law to support their political philosophies while disguising their actions as constitutional interpretations. This compromises the idea of the separation of powers and leads to ambiguity in the law.

The negative consequences of a politicized judiciary are demonstrated by instances from all around the world. Political influence on judges has been connected to a collapse in democratic institutions and a climate of impunity for powerful people in nations like Turkey and Venezuela. Justice Babar has been repeatedly giving relief to activists and leaders of a certain political dissident party. Instead of sticking to the principles of justice, he is serving his masters. Additionally discouraging foreign investment and impeding economic growth is the signature of an impaired judiciary. For businesses to function well, there needs to be a predictable and equitable legal framework. This predictability vanishes when political influence corrupts the judiciary, posing a threat to economic growth. In the end, a weakened court undermines the state, making it more difficult for it to administer justice and advance the interests of its people.


A Systemic Issue

A restricted perspective of the issue is presented by concentrating only on Justice Sattar's case. Even if his circumstances are concerning, it's important to understand that they are only one part of a bigger problem with Pakistan's legal system.

The real issue is going to be changing the way judges are appointed. Political maneuvering is currently encouraged by the current system's lack of openness and merit-based selection. It is imperative to have a more thorough selection procedure with independent commissions and precise standards for judging applicants.

Holding the judiciary responsible also requires the media and civil society. Transparency can be preserved by investigative journalism that highlights possible biases in nominations and critical discussion of court rulings. To further protect the system, judicial training programs that emphasize independence and moral behavior should be strengthened.

Pakistan is a unique basket case where people remain ready to criticize the military establishment on one pretext or the other but gross neglection to laws and abrogation of rules in other institutions like the judiciary, largely go unnoticed. The system of accountability should be equal for all. Judges being invincible is one of the greatest flaws of Pakistan’s judiciary. If politicians pay the price for their wrongdoings, so should the judges be taken to the cleaners for their actions which are on a tangent to their statements, oath, and legal obligations.


*Opinions expressed in this article are the writer's own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of The South Asia Times   

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