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July 7, 2019

Another recorded conversation of a judge after some two decades

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July 7, 2019

ISLAMABAD: After some two decades, another recorded conversation of a judge concentrating on a high-profile case has emerged, creating embarrassment for all that matter.

Both the discussions focused on the accountability process against top politicians. Previously a Lahore High Court (LHC) judge and a powerful person of the then government were involved in the conversation recorded in the late '90s. The conversations also reflected the insecurity and pressure under which the judges operate while dealing with cases involving influential political personalities. Earlier, it was only the audio tape while now it is the video-audio recording. This time, judge of an Accountability Court of Islamabad Arshad Malik, who decided two cases against former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, convicting him in one of them and acquitting in the other, has surfaced. The explosive audio-video was released by Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) Vice President Maryam Nawaz.

Leading London-based PML-N activist Nasir Butt, who frequently visits Pakistan and is seen with the Sharifs, met the judge for being his acquaintance, and made the video, which also showed the anguish the judicial officer is faced with. In December last, Judge Arshad Malik decided two references filed by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) on the direction of the Supreme Court contained in the Panama judgment against Nawaz Sharif. Nawaz Sharif is in jail as a result of the sentencing judgment handed by Arshad Malik. His bail on medical grounds has been rejected by the Islamabad High Court and the Supreme Court refused to extend his bail beyond six weeks it had earlier granted. The former premier’s appeal against the conviction is pending disposal in the IHC and will be taken up after mid-September when the summer vacations end. The NAB’s appeal against the Accountability Judge’s ruling exonerating Nawaz Sharif is also awaiting a decision in the IHC. Both the appeals were taken up simultaneously.

In the previous case that was decided by Judge Muhammad Bashir of another accountability court of Islamabad, the IHC had bailed out the ex-premier. The bail was confirmed by the Supreme Court later, but made it mandatory that bail could only be granted in extreme hardship cases. On the basis of this apex court verdict, the IHC declined bail to Nawaz Sharif on medical grounds.

Before that, a telephonic conversation between the then Ehtesab Commission Chairman Saifur Rehman of the second Nawaz Sharif government and LHC judge Malik Abdul Qayyum, had come up, which was released by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) to dent the accountability process against Asif Ali Zardai. A two-judge LHC bench comprising Justice Qayyum and Justice Najamul Hassan Kazmi, were hearing references numbers 30 and 26 of 1998 against Zardari. Qayyum being head of the panel was in troubled waters fearing pressure of the government, which wanted a speedy and harsh punishment for Zardari. Saifur Rehman was quoted as telling the judge: “How will you cease their Swiss accounts and other properties so that this money cannot be transferred?” Qayyum suggested that “for confiscation of properties better give an additional application as it is required and we will grant a court order”. The judge was under pressure to convict Zardari without any delay. Same was the case with Arshad Malik, who at one point told Butt "he thought of committing suicide because of the pressure brought upon him."

Apart from the cases of these Pakistan judges, even US President Richard Nixon was also caught on tapes in the famous Watergate Scandal. As a result of the recorded conversations, he had to leave office. The White House tapes were audio recordings of conversations between President Nixon and his administration officials, Nixon family members and White House staff produced between 1971 and 1973. In February 1971, a sound-activated taping system was installed in the Oval Office including Nixon’s Oval Office desk, using Sony TC-800B open-reel tape recorders to capture audio transmitted by telephone tapes and concealed microphones. The system was expanded to include other rooms within the White House and Camp David. The system was turned off on July 18, 1973, two days after it became public knowledge as a result of the Senate Watergate Committee hearings.

Nixon was not the first president to record his White House conversations; the practice was initiated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940. The tapes' existence came to light during the Watergate scandal of 1973 and 1974, when the system was mentioned during the televised testimony of White House aide Alexander Butterfield before the Senate Watergate Committee. Nixon’s refusal of a congressional subpoena to release the tapes constituted an article of impeachment against Nixon, and led to his subsequent resignation on August 9, 1974.

Just prior to assuming office in January 1969, President Nixon learned that his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, had installed a system to record his meetings and telephone calls. According to his Chief of Staff HR Haldeman, Nixon ordered the system removed, but during the first two years of his presidency he came to the conclusion (after trying other means) that audio recordings were the only way to ensure a full and faithful account of conversations and decisions. At Nixon's request, Haldeman and his staff—including Deputy Assistant Alexander Butterfield—worked with the US Secret Service to install a recording system.

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