Supreme Defiance

Zafar Qureshi can’t catch a break. Restored to his position at the Federal Investigation Agency on the orders of the Supreme Court, what was to be his first day back on the job never happened because of a bomb threat. When he was finally allowed access to his office the next day, he discovered that the government had sent all five trusted members of his investigation team on forced leave.

Qureshi is the lead investigator in the National Insurance Company Limited (NICL) case, which implicates, among others, the country’s commerce minister and the prime minister’s son, as alleged beneficiaries of kickbacks. When the history of the anticorruption movement in Pakistan is written, Qureshi’s face will be identified with the fight. Except that he didn’t have to do much to earn this honor. The Pakistan Peoples Party-led government has made him the hero history hadn’t intended him to be.
It all began with the NRO judgment. The government wiggled out of implementing the judgment through legal hairsplitting, and by raising the specter of disastrous political instability if it were to comply with the ruling. Having gotten away with it that time, the government has taken now to brazenly road-blocking any attempt at accountability. Hearings come and hearings go. Infuriated by the government’s shameless tactics, Courtroom No. 1 has on occasion lost its equanimity. But the occasional court threats to imprison non-complying officials haven’t made a dent. The government continues stalling and planting what it considers political landmines (e.g. the Zulfikar Ali Bhutto reference) in the court’s path.
Back in the days when the nation was gripped in suspense about the NRO case, it didn’t seem so farfetched an idea that the court could dethrone the PPP-led government. But today, with the government having completed nearly four years in office and an election just around the corner, the court knows that making an example of Zardari & Co. now could actually backfire. The court doesn’t want to go too far and lose the one thing it has that the government doesn’t: moral ground. And does the chief justice really want to hand the PPP a powerful rallying cry—that the Robes, Raiwind and Rawalpindi came together to vanquish the PPP? Let’s not forget the PPP’s legendary victim-martyr complex, which it milks for sympathy votes every election.
With the NICL and Haj cases, the government knows that the time has passed for the court to do anything more than deliver harsh speeches and issue ultimatums. From here until elections in 2013, it will be a low-intensity conflict all the way. The time for activating the nuclear option is long gone. Flex your muscles all you want, use these cases to rap our knuckles and burnish your own credentials, the government is telling the court, we are not moving. Those who may be boggled by the government’s lack of concern about the fallout of its games (an ever-worsening reputation and an ever-sharpening focus on its corruption) with the court should know that a few negative headlines and some corruption-related sound bites have never hurt Pakistani politicians. That’s our history, get used to it.
Still, there are lawyers who believe the chief justice has the winds of history at his back. They say that the Aug. 1 judgment in the Haj case that many read as a softening of the court’s position actually cited Vineet Narain v. Union of India, commonly known as the Hawala case, in which the Indian supreme court took over the Central Bureau of Investigation to ensure transparent investigations into corruption. Some legal experts say that through this judgment the court has signaled its intent to do the same here with the FIA if the government doesn’t behave.
Except that this battle is not about legal theory, it is about the dirt and muck of politics. And while it may have begun in the courtrooms and may sometimes get entangled in the legal thicket, it will certainly end on the political battlefield, whose intrigues and machinations the PPP has perfected. While Qureshi and his ilk may be remembered for fighting the good fight, it will also be hard to forget that they didn’t win.
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