ISLAMABAD — Attempting to defuse a legal scandal that threatened Pakistan’s judiciary, the Supreme Court in Islamabad on Thursday declared “utterly baseless” charges that the integrity of its chief justice had been compromised by claims that his son had accepted money and gifts from a rich businessman.
The surprisingly swift judgment was an attempt to shore up the position of the crusading chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, who’s a hero to many Pakistanis for tackling government corruption and human rights abuses by the military. Many saw the hand of the armed forces or President Asif Ali Zardari’s administration behind the claims against the judiciary, which had turned the affair into a clash of the most powerful institutions in Pakistan, a volatile U.S. ally.
Property tycoon Malik Riaz Hussain had claimed that he gave $3.6 million in cash and paid-for vacations to Arsalan Iftikhar, the 32-year-old son of the chief justice, in return for a promise to favorably influence court cases pending against the businessman. The chief justice took up the case after a media outcry and recused himself from the panel of judges hearing the allegations.
In its ruling Thursday, the judges effectively washed their hands of the case, raising major doubts about the evidence against Iftikhar while not pronouncing his guilt or innocence. The justices said it was “our expectation” that Hussain and Iftikhar “are pursued and brought to book with the full force of the law,” although it issued no orders to do so.
The judgment overlooked the fact, pointed out by many in Pakistan, that the chief justice had failed to notice and question the lavish vacations in London and Monte Carlo enjoyed by not only his son, but also his wife and daughters. Iftikhar has admitted that a friend of a friend paid for the vacations, a man who turned out to be working for Hussain. Iftikhar claims to have paid back the money later.
Hussain said in court earlier this week that he’d paid the money so Iftikhar would “manage to resolve” his court cases, but that he “did not get any relief whatsoever” from the courts. Focusing on this testimony, the judges concluded that the lack of results had “cleared the situation,” whether or not bribes were paid. In fact, the judges concluded, the process had shown how incorruptible the court is.
“To put it simply, even a resourceful person such as Malik Riaz has been forced to concede failure in his attempt to compromise the integrity and independence of the judiciary,” the verdict said.
The speedy decision seemed unlikely to end the public buzz over the revelations of Hussain’s extensive financial dealings with members of the chief justice’s family, as well as current and retired military officers and senior politicians. The ties between the mega-rich property tycoon and Pakistan’s establishment have once again roiled the country and distracted from its many pressing problems, including an economic crisis, battles with domestic militants and an ongoing bitter feud with the United States over access to transit routes through Pakistan for U.S.-led coalition forces in neighboring Afghanistan.
The court lashed out at the news media for running with the story of the chief justice’s family, which the judges said had forced them to open hearings on issue hurriedly without properly probing the evidence.
While the case exposed Hussain’s links to politicians and military personnel, observers said the media might be damaged the most. On Thursday, unaired portions of an interview Hussain gave to Pakistan’s Dunya News were leaked on the Internet, appearing to show the interviewers colluding to avoid embarrassing the tycoon.
At one point, one of the interviewers takes a phone call, during which she’s heard saying she has “received the instructions” that no challenging questions will be put to Hussain. At another point, a son of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani appears to call the other interviewer, seemingly to fix the tone of the show.
Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.