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EDITORIAL: Last month, while hearing a case regarding commercial use of Cantonment Board lands in Karachi acquired for strategic purposes, a three-member bench of the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Gulzar Ahmed, had termed the activity a matter of “embarrassment” for both the judiciary and the military establishment and ordered demolition of wedding halls, cinemas and other business-related facilities.

The CJP had also noted that three bases meant for the Air Force and a naval base were being used for commercial purposes. In fact, such ventures are not restricted to any one place. Those he named seem to think they are above the laws and regulations when it comes to taking advantage of public lands. Last year, a private citizen approached the Islamabad High Court (IHC) complaining that the Navy had constructed a sailing club and a farmhouse on the protected National Park and its adjacent Rawal Lake, denying citizens access to the area.

The court also rejected the military’s claim on over 8,000 acres of national park land and ordered the Capital Development Authority (CDA) to seal the Monal restaurant and asked the ministry of defence to ensure that the amount received from the restaurant as rent is deposited in the national exchequer.

The honourable court also directed the secretary ministry of defence to ascertain the officials responsible for construction of the golf course and chairman CDA to probe construction of the restaurant on national park land.

In its verdict in that case issued on Friday, IHC Chief Justice Athar Minallah ordered knocking down of the two facilities and also initiation of criminal proceedings against former naval chief Zafar Mehmud Abbasi as well as some other officials for approving illegal constructions. The Navy has been ordered to cease all activities on the Rawal Lake and hand over the land to Small Dams Organisation, and the Islamabad Wildlife Management Board to restore the natural habitation in the lake’s surroundings.

In his exhaustive 45- page verdict Justice Minallah, also noted that “the execution of the two ventures, PN Farms and the Sailing Club, is a classic example of the non-existence of rule of law”.

Furthermore, he observed “the engagement of the armed forces in an activity which is a transgression from the constitutional mandate, e.g., undertaking commercial or real estate ventures, etc., is definitely not in the public interest.” He went on to add: “its [the military’s] coercive power, strength and discipline can only be used for the restricted functions prescribed under the Constitution rather than using these characteristics to enforce its will on the people that created it.” This is a serious indictment of the conduct of the organisations mentioned therein.

It surely will find resonance with the general public, but is not good for the public image of those involved in misapplying their power. Hopefully, amends will be made for the past illegal pursuits with a resolve to observe all laws and regulations in the future.

For now, the court has ordered the federal government to proceed against Admiral Abbasi under the 1961 Ordinance for acts and omissions “amounting to misconduct on his part.” Considering which way the balance of power is tilted and that the other organisations the honourable justice referred to are also faced with the same issue, there may be some foot-dragging. But there is no way the order of the IHC can be ignored. The rule of law is expected to prevail, at least in this one instance.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2022

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