Pak SC takes up petitions against contempt law

Islamabad: Pakistan`s Supreme Court today began hearing a bunch of petitions against a new contempt of court law aimed at protecting top government functionaries, with chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry saying a quick decision is expected as the matter involves the independence of the judiciary.

A five-judge bench headed by the Chief Justice is hearing more than 25 petitions challenging the Contempt of Court Act of 2012 that was passed by Parliament, apparently to protect Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf from possible disqualification for refusing to revive graft cases against President Asif Ali Zardari.

Abdul Shakoor Paracha, the federal government counsel, asked the bench to form a full bench to hear the petitions in view of the importance of the matter. He also sought more time to prepare for the case, saying he was appointed by the government only on Sunday. The Chief Justice remarked that only the apex court has the right to decide the type of bench that will hear a case.

He cited examples of similar cases being heard in the past by smaller benches and said the current bench has senior judges who could handle the matter. The Chief Justice further said the case was very important as it involves the independence of the judiciary and there should be a quick decision. Attorney General Irfan Qadir too sought two weeks to prepare for the case, saying a case such as the one against the contempt of court law had not been heard in the country`s history.

However, the Chief Justice again responded that such cases had been heard by the apex court in the past. The counsel for the petitioners argued that the new law affects the independence of judiciary, which is completely protected by the Constitution. President Zardari recently signed the Contempt of Court Bill into law after it was passed by the two houses of Parliament.

The law exempts top government functionaries, including the Prime Minister and federal ministers, from court proceedings under contempt charges. Legal experts have contended that the law was passed to protect the premier from contempt charges for refusing to reopen corruption cases in Switzerland against President Zardari.

The apex court has set July 25 as the deadline for Prime Minister Ashraf to state whether he will reopen the cases against Zardari and experts have said that the premier faces the risk of disqualification. Ashraf became the premier last month after his predecessor, Yousuf Raza Gilani, was convicted of contempt and disqualified by the apex court for refusing to reopen the cases against Zardari.