Pakistan's Supreme Court Takes On Controversy

Mar 7, 2012
Originally published on March 7, 2012 6:08 pm
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


In Pakistan, there are longstanding tensions between the elected government and the military intelligence establishment. And now, a third player has entered the fray, Pakistan's Supreme Court.

It is led by a firebrand chief justice and it is aggressively taking on social and political topics, as well as sensitive national security issues.

As NPR's Jackie Northam reports from Islamabad, some are applauding the court's decisions, while others fear it is overstepping its bounds.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The halls of Pakistan's Supreme Court, in Islamabad, are a whirlwind of activity during a regularly scheduled morning break. Lawyers wearing flowing black gowns sip sweet milky tea and discuss cases with their colleagues, while their aids flit between one office and another.

The high court building, with its modern geometric design, is impressive. Some lawyers say its also fast becoming a bastion of judicial activism, taking on cases that touch every part of Pakistani society.

A McDonald's restaurant here in Islamabad was the focus of one recent Supreme Court case involving irregularities over the building's lease. A while back, the court took up a case involving the flogging of a 17-year-old girl, and it's gone after election officials. The Supreme Court has even extended its reach into local issues such as traffic control.

Tariq Mehmood, a retired judge, says the high court is filling a gap.

TARIQ MEHMOOD: This was basically the job of this government, and they should have concentrated to all these things, but they didn't pay much heed. The people are disappointed, and everyone is approaching the Supreme Court for - to resolve the problem.

NORTHAM: But the Supreme Court is wading into much deeper waters now, which many people fear could further destabilize Pakistan. A recently charged prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gillani, was contempt for refusing to cooperate in reopening a longstanding corruption case against President Asif Ali Zardari. If convicted, Gillani could face six months in prison and be ejected from office.

The high court also ordered Pakistan's powerful military intelligence agency, the ISI, to produce seven men who had been detained without charge since 2010 on suspicion of attacking a military installation.

Amina Masood Janjua, who runs an NGO called Defence of Human Rights, was in the courtroom the day the prisoners were brought in.

AMINA MASOOD JANJUA: You could see the torture on their faces. They were reduced to skeletons and their kidneys were failed. They were suffering with cancers, with hepatitis, with tuberculosis. It was a torturing sight.

NORTHAM: Janjua says the Supreme Court is bold to take on what she calls the ISI's policy of illegal detention. But Asma Jahangir, a former president of the Pakistani Bar Association, says the high court didn't go far enough. It didn't push the intelligence agency to give details about its detention policy. Jahangir says the whole thing was for show, especially by the chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry.

JANJUA: It just appears that he's so desperate to be in the media, and it's a judiciary that caters to media. It's every comment that they make in court appears on television at the same time.

NORTHAM: Chaudhry has been in the middle of a media frenzy since he was installed as chief justice by foreign military leader General Pervez Musharraf in 2005. His dismissal on misconduct charges a couple years later led to a groundswell of demonstrations across Pakistan.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

NORTHAM: Chaudhry was ultimately reinstated, and Musharraf resigned under pressure. Many lawyers say Chaudhry and other members of the high court now feel they're on a mission to set Pakistan on the road to democracy and cure all its ills, but Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, a university professor in Islamabad, says there's more to it than that.

AASIM SAJJAD AKHTAR: The Supreme Court itself has aspirations to be a very influential political player and, if you see some of the big high profile cases that have gone on, I don't think that that's too far from the truth.

NORTHAM: And Akhtar says it's difficult to see what can slow the Supreme Court's aggressive action. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.