Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his close aides are unfazed by the conviction of former Senator Nihal Hashmi for threatening the Supreme Court of Pakistan. In fact, contempt of court seems to be part of his strategy to malign the court with an aim to offend it after his disqualification. However, the question is: how many ministers will commit contempt after many have already committed it and whether the court would punish all of them?
Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz have blatantly been committing contempt since the court took up the Panama case against the Sharif family. Many ministers, closed to the former prime minister and his daughter, have followed suit. However, Nihal Hashmi had crossed all limits. He warned the judges hearing the Panama case of “dire consequences” for investigations against the Sharif family. “Those carrying out investigations against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his family members would not be able to live in Pakistan. Listen! You ask the son of Nawaz Sharif to submit details of bank accounts. Who are you to ask him about his account details? We are workers of Nawaz Sharif, those who have made the Sharif family accountable (earlier) and (those) doing so (now) will not be spared… we will make an example of them. You are in service today and it will difficult for you and your family to live in this country, like you are making it difficult for an honourable and conscientious Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif,” he had said. After his threats to the judges and JIT members and their families, he was asked to resign from his Senate seat and his party membership was also suspended. However, he refused to step down.
His tirade had forced the Supreme Court to call the government the Sicilian mafia. It was clear that he could not have threatened the judges and JIT members on his own. Eight months after the threats, the court sentenced him to one-month in jail and barred him from holding public office for five years. His conviction has divided law experts. Some say the court should have pardoned him after he had apologized to it since courts usually observe restraint in contempt cases and forgive the accused. Others opine he had attempted to sabotage the justice system of Pakistan and deserved the punishment. The verdict was announced by a three-member bench comprising Justice Asif Saeed Khan Khosa, Justice Dost Muhammad Khan and Justice Sajjad Ali Shah. It was a 2-1 decision, with a dissenting note by Justice Dost Muhammad Khan. The verdict says the former senator had attacked the judiciary, the judges and those who were tasked by the court with investigating allegations of criminal conduct on part of his political boss – Nawaz Sharif and his family. “After a verbal tirade and threats, Hashmi himself realised his behaviour to be improper, unwise and imprudent. His controversial speech was an effort to obstruct, interfere and prejudice the proceedings pending before the court and the JIT investigating the Panama Papers case. The belated apology submitted by the respondent after about seven months of commencement of the proceedings and at the fag end of the proceedings when the evidence of the prosecution has already been completely recorded and closed speaks volumes about the apology being an afterthought,” the court observed.
The judgment indicates the court might have pardoned him if he had not delayed the apology. However, if ministers, all of them from the Punjab, who have committed contempt, are pardoned, the court will be criticized that it had punished a middle class senator from Sindh, but failed to lay hands on powerful ministers from the Punjab. Legislators and people of Sindh will raise the issue. On the other hand, if the court punishes all of them, it will have to face criticism for being careless about its use of authority. Even if the court pardons all contemnors, there is also a possibility that the ruling party can use more ministers and legislators to commit contempt, so that the court could be incited and forced to take action against them. It will be a tricky situation for the court, though it has many options at its disposal. According to experts, it can bar the media from telecasting and printing speeches of firebrand ministers. If the ruling party still continues to target the judges, the court can ordered the government to ban it. According to the Article 17 of the Constitution, “Every citizen, not being in the service of Pakistan, shall have the right to form or be a member of a political party, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the sovereignty or integrity of Pakistan and such law shall provide that where the Federal Government declares that any political party has been formed or is operating in a manner prejudicial to the sovereignty or integrity of Pakistan, the Federal Government shall, within fifteen days of such declaration, refer the matter to the Supreme Court whose decision on such reference shall be final.” The court can ban the PML-N under the law if its leadership continues its tirade against the judiciary and the establishment.
Even if all contemnors are convicted, it will be unfair if former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz are not punished under the contempt law, because they are leading a smear campaign against the judiciary. Perhaps, the court is sparing them because it knows each of them will be sentenced to at least 14 years in jail and disqualification for 10 years in corruption cases. An accountability court is expected to announce its verdict in at least one case by the end of this month. Verdicts in other cases will be announced after a gap of weeks. It appears both have decided to make the most of the period and commit contempt to the maximum level. It will be still unfair if the court does not punish them for contempt.