LAHORE/ISLAMABAD: The Lahore High Court on Monday sought a report and para-wise comments from the National Accountability Bureau on a petition seeking the release of Jang/Geo Group Editor-in-Chief Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman after setting aside his illegal arrest in a 34-year-old property case.
Ms Shaheena Shakil, wife of Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, has moved a habeas corpus petition in the LHC through Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan. Ahsan argued before a two-member bench comprising Justice Ali Baqar Najafi and Justice Tariq Saleem Sheikh that his client was summoned by the NAB on March 12 to answer certain questions regarding the verification of a complaint pertaining to 54-Kanal land he acquired in 1986. He said Nawaz Sharif was the chief minister of Punjab at that time and exempted the land in accordance with the law.
The court asked whether Nawaz Sharif had been summoned by the NAB to which Aitzaz responded that he read in newspapers that the NAB had summoned Nawaz in the same case. Continuing his arguments, Aitzaz said the husband of his client was detained illegally by the NAB authorities on March 12 when he was leaving the premises after answering NAB questions.
He added the watchdog body flouted the law and its Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) issued on October 8, 2019. He said neither the questionnaire was given to Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman nor investigation was finalized but the NAB chairman issued arrest warrants without applying his mind.
He pointed out that the NAB chairman was in Islamabad at the time of Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman’s appearance in Lahore but issued warrants without having a final report from the NAB Lahore office. This showed mala fide on the part of NAB authorities. Aitzaz requested the court to set aside the arrest warrants and remand order and release Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman from illegal detention of the NAB.
Justice Najafi, however, asked Aitzaz whether the instant constitutional petition is maintainable after an accountability court granted physical remand of the accused.
Aitzaz replied he has also challenged the remand order, saying that it was an illegal and void abinitio order.
Justice Najafi remarked the NAB should have followed some parameter and its own SOP. He questioned the NAB prosecutor why the questionnaire was not delivered to Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, which is part of its SOP issued in October 2019. NAB Special Prosecutor Faisal Raza Bukhari did not render satisfactory answer to the court’s query and said the case of Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman was at inquiry stage.
The judge remarked why the arrest warrants were issued while Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman was cooperating with the NAB in its proceedings. It seems that the competent authority had not applied its mind.
“Has he been arrested because he is running the largest media group of the country and running news against the government? Is there a nexus between the government and the NAB, Justice Najafi remarked.
The NAB prosecutor, however, replied in negative and said the NAB has been working independently. “Independence of media and independence of judiciary are the two pillars of the state and no one would be allowed to destabilize them, Justice Najafi said and regretted that the NAB chairman issued arrest warrants the same day without applying his mind.
Justice Najafi said the courts would appreciate accountability across the board in accordance with the law but deviation from the law would not be tolerated.
As Ahsan tried to read out accountability court’s remand order, Justice Najafi on a lighter note said, “We have pleaded your case before the NAB”.
However, the lawyer succeeded in drawing the court’s attention towards certain flaws in the remand order. He said a remand order should be well reasoned but the trial court simply wrote that it was first remand so the reasons would be given for every subsequent remand. He pointed out that the accountability court while granting 12 days physical remand of Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman on March 13 did not apply Section 24 of the National Accountability Ordinance 1999 in correct perspective.
Justice Najafi said when a lawyer of Aitzaz caliber appears before a trail court, such mistakes are obvious.
The court granted permission to Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman to meet his family, lawyers and personal physician Dr Azmat.
Answering a court query, the NAB prosecutor said Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman would be provided daily medical checkup, CPAP machine (the sleep apnea), medication, home food, clothes, newspapers, books and writing material.
The court adjourned the hearing till March 26 and directed the NAB to file a report and para-wise comments by the next date of hearing.
Meanwhile, the opposition parties including PML-N, JUI-F and JI on Monday filed a petition in the Islamabad High Court against the arrest of Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman.
Former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Ahsan Iqbal, Shahida Begum MNA (JUI-F) and Maulana Abdul Akbar Chitrali, MNA of JI, filed the combined petition and nominated Federation of Pakistan, Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority and National Accountability Bureau.
The petition states that the freedom of expression and the right to information are integrally linked with political rights enshrined under Article 17 of the Constitution. The media is now recognized as the fourth pillar of the state. Any attempt to impede such rights would certainly fall foul of the rights and freedom guaranteed including the rights under Articles 4, 9, 10A, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19 and 19A of the Constitution.
In a democratic setup, there has to be an active and intelligent participation of people in all spheres of their community as well as the state. It is their right to be kept informed about current political, social, economic and cultural life as well as the burning topics.
The petition states that Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman was arrested on 12-03-2020 by the orders of the NAB chairman by abusing the statutory power of arrest under the National Accountability Ordinance 1999 and in violation of the constitutional guarantees of fundamental rights and the law laid down by the superior courts and this honourable court vide its judgment dated 08-03-2020 in WP No 769/2019.12.
The petition states that as per media reports, few days ago, Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman was put under tremendous pressure to stop any kind of criticism about the performance of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), especially in Shahzaib Khanzada’s programme. Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman flatly refused to oblige the illegal demand in the interest of the freedom of expression and the right to know. However, he declared that the platforms of Jang and Geo are open for the NAB to provide its version on any news and analysis carried out by the Jang/Geo Group.
Few months ago, the NAB used the PEMRA to exert so much pressure on the Jang/Geo Group to stop criticism on the NAB that the Jang/Geo Group had to file a petition in the Lahore High Court just to seek a directions for the PEMRA that it should not treat the NAB as a state institution as the NAB is an investigating agency just like the FIA.
In view of the government’s extreme unhappiness with the professional duties of the Jang/Geo Group while discussing the conduct of the government and the NAB, the Public Information Departments of the federal, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab governments illegally placed a ban on the Jang/Geo Group, refusing to give it any advertisements.
One week ago, the Geo News filed a petition in the Lahore High Court, challenging the discrimination being pursued by the federal government and governments of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In this background, the first call-up notice was issued on 28- 02-2020 to Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman by the NAB Lahore for complaint verification to appear on 05-03-2020 and explain the alleged illegal allotment of land by the LDA. Consequently, Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman appeared before the NAB Lahore. It is highlighted that the alleged matter relates to the purchase of plots from private owners in Johar Town, Lahore, in 1986.
The second call-up notice was issued on 10-03-2020 to Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman by the NAB Lahore for complaint verification to appear on 12-03-2020 and explain the alleged illegal allotment of land by the LDA.
Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman appeared before the NAB Lahore on 12-03-2020 and provided to the NAB all supporting documents. He was arrested the same day.
The petition said the arrest of Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman has been universally condemned for being an attempt to gag independent media by national and international journalist associations such as the Council of Pakistan Newspapers Editors, the Reporters without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the All Pakistan Newspapers Society and the press clubs all over the country as well as human rights organizations like the Human Rights Watch and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and even by the members of the United Kingdom parliament and the ministers of US and UK governments.
The petition said after the press conference of Special Assistant to Prime Minister Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan on the arrest of Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, the federal government and the PEMRA directed cable operators to shut down the Geo News or shift it to lower numbers of cable and it was done immediately.
The petition has requested the court to declare the actions of the federal government and the PEMRA illegal and direct them not to interfere in the broadcasts of Geo channels, including any shuffling or any audio and video interference. It requested the court to restore Geo channels placement to their original position that was before the arrest of Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman.
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