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CJP says prima facie LHC judge committed misconduct; petitioner sought to derail democracy

SC suspends earlier ruling nullifying military trials of civilians

Ansar M Bhatti/DNA

ISLAMABAD: Following much deliberation over measures to avoid delay in holding of sought-after general elections, the Supreme Court Friday evening suspended the Lahore High Court’s poll-related order, paving way for the elections to take place on February 8, a major demand of political stake holders and the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP).

A three-member bench, headed by Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Qazi Faez Isa and comprising Justice Sardar Tariq and Justice Mansoor Ali Shah, took up the appeal filed by the ECP on the LHC order halting the training of district returning officers (DROs) and returning officers (ROs).

“The election commission should do its job […] we will not micromanage you,” CJP Isa told the ECP’s team at the court, noting that there should be no hindrance in staging the polls now.

In its order on the ECP’s petition, the three-member SC bench ruled that the LHC would not hold further hearings on the petitions related to the appointment of polling officers and that any matter pertaining to the issue should be referred to the top court.

The LHC’s decision, which came on a plea filed by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) lawyer Umair Niazi, suspended ECP’s decision to appoint the ROs and DROs from the executive branch.

The single-member LHC bench then referred the matter to the court’s chief justice, seeking the formation of a larger bench to hear the issue further. The LHC, today, constituted a bench to hear the case on December 18.

However, after the top court’s order, the issue will not be taken up in the high court as the petitions have been deemed “non-maintainable” by the SC.

CJP Isa, while reading out the order, also issued a contempt of court notice to the PTI lawyer, seeking an explanation from him as to why proceedings should not be initiated against him.

At the outset of the hearing, CJP Isa clarified that the benches are being constituted under the Supreme Court (Practice and Procedure) Bill, 2023.

“It was my wish that senior-most judges should be part of this bench and I proposed the same. However, Justice Ijazul Ahsan could not come due to his engagements. Then, I asked Justice Mansoor Ali Shah.”

CJP Isa then asked ECP’s lawyer Sajeel Swati what was the hurry that he had to appear before the court at this hour.

In response, Swati said: “Our petition regarding the February 8 elections needed to be heard today.”

The CJP — who was set to leave abroad today — asked the lawyer what would have happened if he had boarded his flight. “But well, it’s my constitutional responsibility and I have to fulfill it.”

The ECP’s lawyer then informed the court that the LHC had suspended the commission’s notification to appoint ROs and DROs from the bureaucracy.

“The LHC’s order stopped the election process,” Swati said.

When the court asked the lawyer to explain the issue further, he said that PTI’s Umair Niazi had moved the LHC seeking the appointment of the DROs and ROs from the judiciary and not from the executive.

Accepting the PTI’s petition, he said, the LHC suspended the commission’s notification. The lawyer further said that for the ECP, its priority was the judicial officers, but the judiciary declined.

He also noted that it isn’t the ECP that provides the list of the officers for polling duties, the government does — rebutting PTI’s allegations of bias.

The ECP’s lawyer also said that PTI has demanded elections be held in a transparent manner under Article 218. At this, Justice Shah wondered whether Article 218 that transparent polls cannot take place.

The lawyer then said that the PTI wanted the provision of appointing DROs and ROs from the bureaucracy to end forever. The petitioner, PTI, had also prayed to the LHC that the returning officers be appointed from the judiciary.

“This section could have been challenged at any time, so why is it being challenged now? Did the LHC also suspend the Sindh, KP, and Balochistan ROs appointments?” Justice Shah wondered.

Moving on, the CJP wondered what the PTI’s lawyer wanted. The CJP asked how could the high court pass an order against its own verdict. He then reminded the people that the SC had passed the Feb 8 polls order on the plea of PTI — the same party whose plea in LHC led to this conundrum.

The CJP then asked whether Umair Niazi’s LHC petition could stop the entire polling process across the country.

“Umair Niazi’s petition is in contempt of the Supreme Court’s order. It is a bid to derail democracy,” the CJP said and asked whether the SC should start a contempt proceeding.

He added that it seems that Niazi does not want elections.

The chief justice asked if judicial officers, election commission, and executive do not conduct elections, then who will? “Prima facie, it seems like a bid to postpone the polls.”

The CJP asked the ECP counsel about who is responsible for holding the elections. At this, the lawyer said that ECP is responsible.

At this, CJP Isa said: “Sorry we are very clear. Do you remember when your petition was underway in the apex court we said that we’ll not do your jon but we’ll ensure your job is done. There is a big difference in both things,”

“I’m very sorry that such orders are being passed by the judiciary,” he said, lamenting about the LHC’s order and the judiciary’s refusal to provide staff.

The hearing went on for several more minutes, following which CJP Isa announced the order to suspend the high court’s order.

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