03/22/2007, 00.00
PAKISTAN
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Judiciary and media independence are vital, says Pakistani bishop

by Qaiser Felix
Following the removal of Pakistan’s Chief Justice Chaudhry, the chairman of the Bishops’ Conference of Pakistan reiterates the importance such pillars of democracy. Despite opposition from some Muslim circles, senior-most justice Bhagwandas is set to become the first Hindu to head Pakistan’s Supreme Court as a result of Chaudry’s suspension.

Islamabad (AsiaNews) – “We are sorry for the judicial crisis in the country and condemn the unfair treatment visited upon Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, Chief Justice of Pakistan. We trust that full media freedom will be guaranteed in the matter,” said Archbishop Lawrence John Saldanha, chairman of the Bishops’ Conference of Pakistan.

Mgr Saldanha told AsiaNews that the “judiciary is a very important component of the institutions of a democratic country and should be independent. Only when this is true can we get real justice from our courts.”

On March 9, Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf filed a reference of misconduct against Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, prompting the Supreme Judicial Council to suspend him from his post as chief justice of the Supreme Court.

International observers and human rights organizations have called the action illegal because it violates the principle of separation of powers.

Protests erupted across the country against what many see as an authoritarian action based on suspicious grounds that left the judge unable to defend himself.

Mgr Saldanha condemned any “unfair pressure, interference or intimidation against the country’s institutions because they are inappropriate methods and cannot guarantee the independence of the judiciary and the media, both vital for a healthy democracy. We must reassert [the principle] that the courts must be free from any outside interference.”

In the absence of senior Supreme Court judge, Justice Rana Bhagwandas, who was travelling in India, Justice Javed Iqbal was appointed acting chief justice of Pakistan.

As Mgr Saldanha hoped, Justice Bhagwandas is expected to take over the top post tomorrow after arriving back on Wednesday. As a Hindu, he would be the second non Muslim to occupy that function; the first was Justice Cornelius from 1960 to 1968.

However, this appointment has already been challenged by some Muslims. Senator Maulana Samiul Hag said that under Islamic law a non Muslim cannot chair the Supreme Court of an Islamic country, especially since he would have the last say on Shariah-based rulings.

Islamic groups like Jamatud Dawa have also called such an appointment un-Islamic.

But former Chief Justices Javed Iqbal and Saeed-uz-Zaman Siddiqui responded by saying that the Constitution is silent on banning non Muslims. Justice Iqbal suggested that the chief justice could simply delegate a senior judge to head the Shariah Appellate Bench.

In the country Chaudry’s removal drove lawyers and judges into the streets on March 12 and 13 bringing the activities of the courts to a halt.

In response police reacted with violence. On March 16 they rioted inside a private TV station after it broadcast a lawyers’ protest during a speech by President Musharraf explaining his reasons for sacking Chaudhry.

Increasingly, people are convinced that Musharraf’s actions are politically motivated and in retaliation against Chaudry’s rulings in important cases that jeopardised government’s interests.

In June 2006 for example, he overturned the sale of Pakistan Steel Mills Co. to foreign interests on the grounds that the government, including the cabinet committee on privatisation chaired by Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, violated its own rules.

Also last year he forced the secret police to release people it had originally claimed were not in its custody despite families’ protests.

He also stopped a number of government and private projects hazardous to the environment, ordered the closure of substandard private institutions and medical colleges, and ruled on a number of human rights cases involving abduction, detention, torture and murder

More recently he expressed an opinion that President Musharraf could not be at the same time head of state and head of the armed forces.

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