A landmark verdict

The Supreme Court of Pakistan has announced a historic verdict in the 2017 Faizabad sit-in by the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan, which will pave the way for strengthening national institutions and improving their performance. It also sets directions to deal with any dangerous situation in the future and save the country from any internal threat to its integrity and religious harmony.

The strongly-worded judgment observes lapses on part of the government, media, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, intelligence agencies, the armed forces, and the Election Commission of Pakistan. The judgment also indicates how the court has become stronger over the last few years to decide any case of a sensitive nature. It was not only a sensitive case politically, but also involved religious sentiments of the people of Pakistan. Besides threatening the political government, it also posed serious challenges to the writ of the state and aimed to divide the nation on religious lines. However, the court has strengthened the state by its landmark judgment.

It has directed the government, law enforcement agencies, intelligence agencies and the army’s media wing to operate within their mandate. In the conclusion, the court directed the federal and provincial governments to monitor and prosecute those advocating hate, extremism and terrorism. It also ordered the government ─ through the defence ministry and respective chiefs of the armed forces ─ to initiate action against armed forces’ personnel found to have violated their oath. The police and other law enforcement agencies were directed to develop “flexible” standard operating procedures to deal with similar protests in the future.

The court observed that any person who issues an edict or fatwa that “harms another or puts another in harm’s way must be criminally prosecuted under the Pakistan Penal Code, the Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997, and/or the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016.” It accepted that citizens have the right to form and be members of political parties, subject to “reasonable restrictions” imposed by the law. “Each citizen and political party retains the right to peaceful assembly and protest, as long as it complies with the reasonable legal restrictions in the interest of public order. The right to assembly and protest is circumscribed only to the extent that it infringes on the fundamental rights of others, including their right to free movement and to hold and enjoy property. Protesters, who obstruct people’s right to use roads and damage or destroy property must be proceeded against in accordance with the law and held accountable,” it ruled.

The court also ordered the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to proceed against political parties violating the law. “All political parties have to account for the source of their funds in accordance with the law,” it noted and observed the state’s failure to prosecute those at the highest echelons of the government, who were responsible for the murder and attempted murder of peaceful citizens on the streets of Karachi during the May 2007 lawyers’ protests, set a bad precedent and encouraged others to resort to violence to achieve their agendas. “The state must always act impartially and fairly. The law is applicable to all, including those who are in government and institutions must act independently of those in government,” the court asserted.

The judgment said the Inter-Services Intelligence, the Intelligence Bureau, Military Intelligence and the Inter-Services Public Relations “must not exceed their respective mandates”. “They cannot curtail freedom of speech and expression and do not have the authority to interfere with broadcasts and publications, in the management of broadcasters/publishers and in the distribution of newspapers. The intelligence agencies “should monitor activities of all those who threaten the territorial integrity of the country, and all those who undermine the security of the people and the state by resorting to or inciting violence.”

The court added that it would be appropriate to enact laws which clearly stipulate the respective mandates of the intelligence agencies in order to ensure transparency and the rule of law. “The Constitution emphatically prohibits members of the armed forces from engaging in any kind of political activity, which includes supporting a political party, faction or individual. The government of Pakistan through the Ministry of Defence and the respective chiefs of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force are directed to initiate action against the personnel under their command who are found to have violated their oath,” the court said. It also directed the police and other law enforcement agencies to develop standard operating procedures and plans on “how best to handle rallies, protests and dharnas, and ensure that such plans/procedures are flexible enough to attend to different situations”. The court also ordered action against cable operators, who had stopped or interrupted the broadcasts of licensed broadcasters.

The court had taken up the case after taking notice of massive traffic jams arising out of the sit-in at Faizabad and summoned a report from the ministries of interior and defence, Intelligence Bureau and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The court was concerned that Islamabad and Rawalpindi had been held hostage by a few “miscreants” while the state functionaries appeared to be negotiating with them, rather than clearing the way for the public who were being denied access to courts, schools, and places of work, etc. The court had also expressed its annoyance over the use of abusive, filthy and provocative language by leaders of the sit-in against politicians, judges and heads of state institutions.

The 2017 Faizabad dahrna, which started on the pretext of changes in election laws, threatened the integrity of the country. It appeared to plunge the country into violence by promoting religious and political hatred. It was the responsibility of state institutions to control the situation, but the court had to intervene when they failed to perform their duties. The verdict also serves as a warning to religious and political parties, which block roads and take the law into their own hands. It is hoped the Supreme Court guidelines will be enforced to avoid such a situation in the future.