The scheduled appearance of Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani before the Supreme Court has revived the memories of November 28, 1997 when an unruly mob of the PML-N workers and leaders stormed the court building in Islamabad and forced then Chief Justice Syed Sajjad Ali Shah to adjourn the contempt of court case against the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
During his second stint in power as prime minister, Nawaz Sharif wished to rid himself of an awkward Chief Justice, Syed Sajjad Ali Shah who was not ready to toe his line. Therefore, Sharif started consulting his confidantes as to how to get rid of the defiant chief justice. In his book, Glimpses into the Corridors of Power (OUP 2007), which was published 10 years after the apex court’s storming, a former foreign minister of Sharif cabinet, Gohar Ayub Khan, writes that Nawaz Sharif also wanted to summon the chief justice (Sajjad Shah) before the privilege committee of National Assembly (for having committed contempt of the parliament).
Giving details about the Sharif plan, Gohar Ayub Khan writes that he was first asked to provide guidance as to how Sajjad Ali Shah could be summoned before the privilege committee and later for sending him to jail. “The tussle between the premier and chief justice was reaching its peak. I got a call from the prime minister on November 5, 1997 asking me to come and see him in his chamber in the National Assembly,” Gohar Ayub writes in his memoirs. “When I arrived, I found members of the privilege committee (Nawabzada Iqbal Mehdi and several others) present in the cabinet room. The prime minister asked the chairman of the privilege committee to explain the situation to me. The chairman said that they wanted to summon the chief justice before the privilege committee and all those present (including the PM) concurred.”
Gohar Ayub Khan further writes: “I told them that the rules did not provide for such a drastic step. I have prepared the rules as speaker. No, you cannot summon him and if you make the mistake of doing so, he will disregard your summons. The privilege committee and the PM will be insulted. With that, the discussion came to an end. The PM asked me to accompany him to the PM House. In the car, the PM put his hands on my knee, and said: ‘Gohar Sahib, show me the way to arrest the chief justice and keep him in jail for a night’.” Gohar, despite being the son of Pakistan’s first military dictator Field Marshal President General Ayub Khan, was shocked and advised Sharif against even thinking about it.
But deep-thinking Sharif kept thinking till the unthinkable happened on November 27, 1997 when hundreds of the Pakistan Muslim League and Muslim Students Federation workers and leaders breached the security cordon around the Supreme Court building shortly after Nawaz Sharif had appeared before the chief justice and defence lawyer SM Zafar was arguing his case. A journalist rushed into the courtroom and warned the apex court bench of an imminent attack by an uncontrollable mob. The chief justice got up quickly, thanked SM Zafar and adjourned the hearing of the contempt case against Sharif. Led by none other than Sharif’s political secretary Colonel (R) Mushtaq Tahirkheli, the rowdy mob chanted slogans against the chief justice and damaged furniture. Famous anchor Tariq Aziz, who was a member of the National Assembly on a PML ticket at that time, threw and broke the portrait of Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah. The police managed to restore normalcy after baton charging and tear gassing the mob, both inside and outside the courthouse.
To recall, Chief Justice Sajjad Ali Shah was the lone dissenter in the 11-member bench of the apex court, whose decision had restored Nawaz Sharif to power in May 1993 as prime minister after he had been booted out by President Ghulam Ishaq Khan. Justice Shah had also ordered the release of some civil servants who had been arrested on the orders of Nawaz Sharif. These events became the starting point of a long tussle between the two. The first confrontation by Nawaz Sharif was the establishment of special trial courts which were established in contravention of the advice of the chief justice. However, Sharif finally succeeded in dividing the superior court judges into two camps. The infamous Article 58(2)-b, Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan (which empowered the President of Pakistan to dismiss the National Assembly) was restored and suspended within minutes by two separate benches of the apex court assembled against each other.
A three-member bench headed by Chief Justice Sajjad Ali Shah suspended the operation of the 13th Amendment to restore the powers of the president to dissolve the National Assembly, a verdict that was set aside within minutes by another 10-member bench of the apex court. The 10-member bench led by Justice Saeeduzzaman Siddiqui granted stay against the CJ Sajjad Shah’s order minutes after it was passed, without receiving any formal petition, a formal complaint was issued by an advocate on which notice was taken and the decision of the chief justice was set aside. All efforts to resolve the judicial crisis failed as both the groups of the superior court judges stuck to their stance and issued separate cause lists.
A two-member Quetta bench of the rebel judges of the apex court who had refused to recognise Sajjad Shah as their chief justice (headed by Justice Saeeduzzaman Siddiqui) took up petitions questioning the validity of Shah’s appointment as chief justice and finally held his appointment in abeyance till further orders besides restraining him from performing judicial and administrative functions. Sajjad Shah declared the order of the two-member bench at Quetta without lawful authority. But in a strange move, the circuit bench of the apex court at Peshawar endorsed the verdict of Quetta bench on a petition challenging the appointment of Shah as chief justice. But Sajjad Ali Shah persevered and continued hearing the contempt case against Nawaz Sharif, eventually leading to the November 28, 1997 attack on the apex court. Sajjad Shah then requested President Farooq Leghari to take the necessary steps for action against Justice Siddiqui by the Supreme Judicial Council. Leghari subsequently wrote a letter to Nawaz Sharif, enclosing a copy of the CJ’s letter and called upon him to act under Article 190 of the Constitution and order the army to provide security cover to the court and to also initiate proceedings for misconduct against Justice Siddiqui.
The prime minister responded the same day with a long rambling letter declining both requests. Sufficient security had already been provided, he stated, and thus calling in the army was not necessary. Nawaz Sharif maintained that there was no justification in taking any action against Justice Siddiqui who later became the chief justice. Sajjad Ali Shah was finally removed as the Chief Justice of Pakistan by none other than his fellow judges on December 2, 1997. It was in March 1999 that a full bench of the apex court indicted six legislators of the PML by framing contempt of court charges against two members of parliament and four members of Punjab Assembly in the 1997 Supreme Court storming case.