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EDITORIAL: Following a year-long inquiry into the infamous video scandal involving accountability court judge Arshad Malik, the Lahore High Court's administrative committee has ordered his "removal from service" for misconduct. The discredited judge, it may be recalled, had convicted former prime minister Nawaz Sharif in the Al-Azizia corruption case reference awarding him a seven-year jail term along with a $25 million fine, and later exonerated him in the Flagship reference. The scandal unfolded when Maryam Nawaz played a dramatic video clip at a news conference to show the judge had admitted before some party loyalists that he had delivered the guilty verdict in the first case under duress, and sought forgiveness for it. Malik, however, alleged in an affidavit furnished before the Islamabad High Court (IHC) that Nawaz League supporters had used an 'immoral' video of him to blackmail him for the acquittal of Sharif in the Al Azizia case.

Both the PML-N and the PTI have welcomed the LHC's decision as vindication of their respective positions. According to the Nawaz League, it established innocence of Sharif, and that he was wrongly sentenced in the case. Things however do not appear to be so simple considering that the Al-Azizia reference was transferred to Arshad Malik's court on Nawaz Sharif's request. And in his affidavit, judge Malik had acknowledged having met Sharif at his Jati Umra residence in Lahore and his son, Hussain Nawaz, in Saudi Arabia. Whether he met them because of pangs of conscience or to seek their sympathies by claiming to have acted under duress is interpreted differently depending, of course, on who is trying to answer that question. As expected, the PTI has hailed the dismissal of the judge terming it a "drop scene of an era where certain judges were blackmailed through cronies." The ruling party, however, does not come out of this scandal smelling of roses either. Despite the judge's suspension by the IHC in August of last year and repatriation to his parent department, the LHC, the government avoided doing its bit, prompting the Supreme Court to term the conduct of judge Malik as "shameful" and censure the Ministry of Law for its laxity in taking action in an "attempt to give refuge to him."

Malik has been given his comeuppance for his disgraceful behaviour. It is unclear though if he acted under pressure from unnamed sources or on the basis of clear and convincing evidence. It is for the legal experts to decide where to go from here, whether the conviction needs to be quashed, as demanded by the PML-N or a retrial is in order for both Al-Azizia and Flagship cases - logic calls for the latter option. But it puts a question mark on the legitimacy of other convictions involving politicians as well as people from under-privileged backgrounds. In certain instances it is easy to lay the blame on undemocratic forces. But the politicians have not done any credit to themselves by implicating opponents in politically-motivated cases. The shoe may be on the other foot now, but accountability czar of a previous PML-N government, Saifur Rehman, can still be heard in a video recording telling a then LHC judge justice Malik Qayyum to give maximum punishment, "full dose" as he put it, to spouse of ex-prime minister Benazir Bhutto in an alleged corruption case, to which the judge readily agrees, though explaining he would award the accused five years as "nobody gives maximum punishment of seven years." After the surfacing of the audio, justice Qayyum was made to resign. But he was later appointed attorney general by the Musharraf regime and subsequently retained by the PPP government in the same position. That meant there was no shame in giving in to 'pressure'. Unless all players, the politicians, the judiciary and civil society take a strong stand against unscrupulous elements, episodes like the present one will keep recurring.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2020