Asma Jahangir is a senior Supreme Court lawyer, former president of the Supreme Court Bar Association and an internationally renowned human rights activist.
On July 21, Saturday, the Herald invited Asma Jahangir for a live online discussion about the political theory behind contempt of court. The discussion was edited for space, clarity and grammar.
Comment from Sultan. Can you explain to me what exactly contempt of court mean?
Asma Jahangir. Contempt of court has several angles to it. It makes the administration of justice effective and should not be used, unless in extreme cases for the protection of reputation of judges or for criticizing them
Comment From Habib. Last month, the contempt of court law was passed. How does this change Pakistan’s judicial and political landscape?
Asma Jahangir. There are some worrying aspects of it that are wider than just protecting the judiciary. It gives immunity to a large number of public office holders from being proceeded under contempt. It stalls contempt proceedings till the basic matter in court is not decided upon. It gives courts powers to prohibit publishing of proceedings held in camera and has done away with one year limitation on scandalization of judges. Also the area covering criticism of the judiciary or its decisions are not wide enough
Comment From M. Ibrahim. I feel that the CJP can do anything. He makes political speeches on a daily basis. He has already expressed his opinion on Contempt Law and threatened to strike it down before the case has come up for hearing. What is your opinion on this?
Asma Jahangir. The political landscape is altered as earlier the judiciary was showing its muscles-rightly or wrongly- now the parliament has also taken up the challenge. Only the people will suffer and the democratic process will be further undermined.
Comment From Jamal. Madam Asma, you fought to have the present CJ reinstated. What is the issue now? How have things changed so much since the lawyers’ movement which was not so long ago?
Asma Jahangir. The CJ, I am afraid, is acting more like a autocratic politician rather than a dignified judge.
Comment From Raza Abdullah. We need radical surgery to get rid of the rotten institutions of our country and somebody needs to take a stand against this mayhem. In my view, all extra-Constitutional actions, barring martial law, are valid to bring the country back from the death throes. What is your opinion?
Asma Jahangir. My answer to Jamal and Abdullah. Jamal much has changed. At least the judiciary is not intimidated by the political government. They were not in the past too. Asma Jilani case, Nawaz Sharif and Sajad Ali Shah debacle and Nasim Hasan Shah remained acting CJ during Benazir government but some judges were intimidated. It is now a populist judiciary. The bar is being divided and used by the government and the CJ. Discussions on the Supreme Court in the bar is shouted down by a few who are favored by the judiciary. It is now very openly done. The question is fundamental. Do we believe in electoral politics or not? do we trust the will of the people or not? do we have the capacity to convince people or not or should we depend on a few “geniuses” to run the place for us?
Comment From Aalee. Will SC Strike Down the contempt bill on 23 rd July?
Asma Jahangir. Aalee not on 23 but later
Comment From Raza Wazir. My Q from Asma Jahangir Sahba is that whether she sees the intense political machination and dependence of political parties on judiciary to resolve their issues and set off their scores through judiciary as the cause of excessive contempt of court notices?
Asma Jahangir. The judiciary, I wish, was the solution but it is not
Comment From Shuja Haider. Does the Supreme Court have the authority to remove an elected representative on contempt of court? I thought the SC worked as a subordinate of federal government. Was I misguided? Can a judge remove a person who once selected the judge himself for his job?
Asma Jahangir. The judiciary is not subordinate but an autonomous constitutional body. It cannot throw a PM out as only the Election Commissioner could have done it. Similarly the parliament cannot throw a judge out. In the past only the Supreme Judicial council could dismiss a judge but this restored judiciary has dismissed judges too. Unlike common perception most of the thrown out judges were not PCO but took a Constitutional oath under a defacto CJ. Here too distinction was made between them.
Comment from Freddy. If criticising politicians is free speech, why is criticising the judiciary “contempt”?
Asma Jahangir. Judiciary has a special place. It is nominated and runs on its moral authority. If allowed to be wildly criticized at random it could lose its sanctity. However, the modern concept is that judges are most responsible for maintaining their image. No self respecting judge will use contempt so frequently as our judges do. Contempt law has been instrumental in dismissal of Supreme and High court judges, the Pm, several lawyers received notices of contempt and government officials are daily threatened by it.
Comment From Aysha. What do think will happen next in this battle between the judiciary and the government? Will one come out a winner or will they both end up destroying each other?
Asma Jahangir. Both end up destroying themselves. Already have. Just running on props.
Comment From Riaz. Do you think there was an alternate before executive other than contempt of court act 2012 to stop the advancement of CJP?
Asma Jahangir. No. The Cj must realize that he cannot expect to fight with all claws out while the other should stick to the game and defend with hands and feet tied.
Comment From Moonis. Madam what is your opinion about the petition filed by Hamid Mir and Absar Aalim? Is it not waste of time and involving SCP in futile matters?
Asma Jahangir. Yes, asking someone to discipline you. Why not do it yourself
Comment From Shinawar. Madam to empower senate of Pakistan as the impeachment institution of CJP and other Judges of SCP and HCs not the need of hour and and a balancing act?
Asma Jahangir. Let us not get carried away. We need a judiciary that is free of pressures from the politicians. A better way would be to expand the Supreme Judicial Council.
Comment From Mansoor. What is your opinion about Indian Judge Justice Katju’s remarks about the SCP decision to send the PM Home?
Asma Jahangir. They are his remarks. I do not fully agree but a number of International jurists have strongly criticised the frequent use of suo motu powers of the Supreme Court
Comment From Fouzia. I do not understand. If there is a contempt of court law which can force a prime minister to resign, then why is there no contempt of court law for the parliament? I would think that parliamentarians need it much more. What do you think?
Asma Jahangir. There is. Under the Constitution as amended by Zia a Parliamentarian can get disqualified for ridiculing judiciary and armed forces. Read Article 63 of the Constitution. Quite unique in our Constitution and this should have been repealed in the 18th Amendment
Comment From Muhammad Faryad. What do you think is the role of lawyers to tame down the judiciary now? Should there be another lawyers’ movement now to tell the SC that if lawyers can stand against a military dictator, they can also stand against a judicial dictator?
Asma Jahangir. Lawyers should remain neutral but leaders of the bar can play a positive role by having a positive engagement with judges. Unfortunately, the jannisari lawyers have a lot to lose if the judiciary got independent of the lawyers.
Comment From Muhammad Faryad. While many liberals are bashing SC and its Judges for their supposed judicial-overreach and most of the conservatives are dreaming of the day when the court ousts the President of the Islamic Republic for shepherding an the government, what side (SC or Gov.) do you think has the potential to do more lasting-damage to the prospects of a prosperous future of this beleaguered country? A government that is setting an example of defying courts or a court that is becoming an executive?
Asma Jahangir. Both in equal measure but the sad causality will be of the process of democratic transition.
Comment From Riaz. Madam is it not a violation of Article 248 to write a letter to Swiss authorities, this being one of the easily interpreted articles of the Constitution?
Asma Jahangir. There are many sides to this argument. The President (any) has immunity and no court has ruled otherwise. On the other hand a letter and an apology is destroying the growth of the country. as far as I am concerned let the letter be written. Politically PPP supporters do argue that all the accountability is singularly targeted at them. Let us also face it that the Sc is not insisting on it because they are allergic to corruption but because of who the target is.