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CONTROVERSY: Son accused of taking money to influence court in cases against tycoon
THERE are not many examples, perhaps none, of a judge summoning his son for an open court trial. That Pakistan's Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammed Chaudhry withdrew from the bench to avoid conflict of interest in the case against son Arsalaan does not detract from the gravity or sincerity of his act.
He recused himself after the attorney-general objected to his hearing charges against his own son. This is a universal principle. Chaudhry himself had laid down a code for judges in 2009. So, a special two-judge bench was constituted.
Chaudhry asked Arsalaan to stay away from their home until he is cleared of the charges. Contending that he had no knowledge about his son's professional or business dealings, the chief justice said: "The Quran says you are responsible for your own actions, not your children's."
This is a new chapter in the controversial career of a judge, not once, but twice appointed to the highest post, also once suspended and detained, upholding the rule of law. It is bound to impact Pakistan's polity and the society as a whole that are undergoing considerable churning.
Chaudhry's court took suo moto notice of a whispering campaign wherein Arsalaan was accused of receiving 350 million rupees (RM19.91 million) to influence the court in several cases pending against a property tycoon, Malik Riaz, who also allegedly financed Arsalaan's foreign junkets.
Arsalaan has denied the charges in public. But The Friday Times editor Najam Sethi says in his June 8-13 editorial that Chaudhry Jr has "privately and qualifiedly accepted some of them before a close media friend".
According to media reports, Riaz is close to both the military and President Asif Ali Zardari -- both of whom allegedly have reasons to see the back of Chaudhry and his judicial activism.
This is the second time Chaudhry has courted controversy because of Arsalaan.
Using undue influence to get him a job was one of the many charges against Chaudhry levelled in 2007 by then president Pervez Musharraf.
Chaudhry was summoned to Army House and during day-long grilling in the presence of five generals, was asked to resign.
He refused and was suspended -- a first in Pakistan. In another first, he challenged the presidential action before the apex court. None of the charges was proven to be true during the subsequent trial.
Musharraf's action triggered the massive Lawyers' Movement. It was a rare moment in the history of Pakistan's politics during which political parties, media and civil society worked in unison. Musharraf was forced to reinstate Chaudhry.
But when Musharraf imposed emergency, the chief justice and his family were under house arrest.
His reinstatement, long after Musharraf's exit as the present regime, too, finds him inconvenient, is part of Pakistan's contemporary history.
Under his charge, Pakistan's judiciary has indeed played a stellar role.
His notable rulings include privatisation of the Pakistan Steel Mills, leading the case of missing persons in Balochistan, arguing and issuing orders against the environmentally damaging New Murree project, ruling the National Reconciliation Ordinance that benefits Zardari and other ruling party leaders as "unconstitutional and irrelevant", and convicting Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani for refusing to pursue corruption charges against the president.
Chaudhry has also annoyed the military. Last year, he warned the army against any attempt to take power saying it would not receive judicial approval.
It would be naïve to see Pakistan's governance in black and white when it comes to civil-military-judiciary relationships. The Supreme Court has in the past upheld military takeover under a "doctrine of necessity". Even Chaudhry's oath-taking as judge of the apex court in 2002 was controversial as it validated Musharraf's Legal Framework Order.
Truth may take a long time to emerge, depending upon the "hardcore evidence" that the judge's detractors claim, and how the court views it. Or, it may not -- like numerous unanswered questions about Osama bin Laden's presence in Pakistan.
And the outcome of the trial may not necessarily be logical. Sethi, Pakistan's best known editor, warns: "Clashes between the government and the Supreme Court erupt every week. If any such clash were to lead to constitutional gridlock -- the chances of which are rising -- the military would get an excuse to sweep aside both of them in the 'national interest'."