Fallout from Arsalangate

By Khaled Ahmed

The PPP government was already in the dock for corruption. Arsalangate dragged some other entities into it: the army, the media, and the chief justice

Malik Riaz Hussain, arguably the biggest real estate developer in Pakistan with ‘connections’, decided to reveal that he had been blackmailed by the son of Chief Justice of Pakistan Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry and had allegedly been forced to spend nearly Rs 40 crore on him. He used journalists of a media house on a social media website to deniably make his case, after which the country witnessed a full-blown media scandal undermining the authority and credibility of the Supreme Court.

Called to the Supreme Court on suo motu, Malik Riaz submitted evidence of payments made to Dr Arsalan Iftikhar. He then went on TV and made additional allegations, some of them implying that Chief Justice Chaudhry may have been aware of what was going on. In answer, Dr Arsalan Iftikhar claimed that he had never met Malik Riaz and that he had received no payments from him or his relatives to finance his clearly lavish holidays abroad. Chief Justice Chaudhry expressed his complete lack of knowledge of all this.The linguistic divide: One partisan of the debate that followed stated: ‘The Chief Justice took suo motu notice of the case and presided over the Bench while in the complete knowledge of the code of conduct of Judges. Given the experience and acumen of My Lord, the Chief Justice, one can say to a moral certainty that he would be aware of the general principle and the specific provision of the code of conduct, which requires judges not to hear matters involving immediate family members’. This comment was in English.

The first divide became visible on the subject and it was linguistic. In Urdu, the issue was addressed in the light of the example of Hazrat Umar who presided over the trial of his son and punished him with his own hands. This linguistic split – which is the most glaring ideological bifurcation in the country – was followed by politicians squaring off against one another: the PMLN and Tehreek Insaf announced themselves on the side of Chief Justice. They accused the ruling PPP of having engineered entrapment through Malik Riaz to get rid of the Chief Justice.

First Army, then TV Anchors: The media rallied to the defence of the Chief Justice. Most of the TV anchors thought it was a conspiracy to challenge the Chief Justice because he had made pointed investigations into “disappearances” in Balochistan. The implication was that the Army was offended and wanted the judge to ‘lay off’, and had used Malik Riaz to make revelations about Arsalan whose reputation was already subject of rumours in Pakistan for some time.

Then lists of journalists who had taken bribes from Malik Riaz appeared on the social media. One particular list ‘disclosed’ that eight top TV anchors had taken cash and properties from Malik Riaz. The targeted journalists were outraged and denied they were connected to Malik Riaz by reason of being beneficiaries. The list itself went around on the email system but no one challenged its authenticity. One glaring error in the list was the spelling of the Bahria Town real state empire owned by Malik Riaz: it was consistently spelled Bahira.

The ‘fixed’ discussion: Then on 14 June 2012, a discussion on a TV channel was revealed as a ‘plant’ in favour of Malik Riaz who wanted to expand further on his allegations against Dr Arsalan Iftikhar, this time moving closer to a direct charge against the Chief Justice: a person called Haideri who ‘assured’ him that ‘all be well’ in cases against him after he had gratified the son, Arsalan. After this, an inter-channel spat broke out and there were charges and counter-charges between two big TV channels. The TV anchors squared off against one another, facilitating guests prepared to bring evidence against rival TV anchors.

The lawyers rallied predictably calling questionably on fellow lawyers not to represent Malik Riaz at the Supreme Court. It was confirmed that the Supreme Court of Pakistan under Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry was answerable to the people of Pakistan and not only to the Constitution. Malik Riaz revealed that in one of the meetings with Chef Justice during his ‘suspension’ period he had got him to pledge that he would not set up a parallel government against the PPP in power.

PPP in the dock: One phone-call during the ‘rigged’ TV discussion with Malik Riaz tended to indicate that the PPP government was not uninvolved in the imbroglio. The PPP was facing an ongoing situation of challenge with the Supreme Court which it accused of issuing vague verdicts against Prime Minister Gilani. Parallel government or not, the Court and Parliament were face to face in an institutional duel after the National Assembly decided that it agreed with its Speaker that Gilani could not be disqualified. It appears that the Chief Justice had offended not only parliament but other elements in the establishment and was now made to cope with the allegedly shady activities of his son.

The PPP government was already in the dock for corruption. Now Arsalangate dragged some other entities into it: the Army, the Media, and the Chief Justice. Two parties in the dock are not expected to suffer too much; the Army and the Chief Justice. The PPP will most probably be punished in the next election. The TV anchors will suffer loss of credibility despite their ratings if they are not fired by their employers. The Chief Justice may find himself ironically in the same fix as premier Gilani: not quite vulnerable under law, he should step down on moral considerations.

Malik Riaz and national economy: As for Malik Riaz, his downfall will hurt Pakistan. His empire, rated the best among real estate facilities in Pakistan, employs hundreds of thousands of people and makes it possible for the same number of families to live in quality housing colonies with good service delivery. His ascent in business he says had been made possible only by accepting the ‘system’ in Pakistan requiring graft at every step. His undoing will be a form of national self-flagellation. It would be a pity if he goes down but the other protagonists are let off. His remark: ‘I want to die!’ speaks for most entrepreneurs in Pakistan gouged by the system.

Malik Riaz is not the only one rumoured to make payoffs to journalists. An ISI officer deposing in front of the judicial commission on the death of journalist Saleem Shahzad admitted that the ISI was making payments to mould journalistic opinion and that he was personally opposed to these payments. The ISI payments were aimed at encouraging anti-Americanism, anti-Indianism and also, fancifully, anti-Israelism for good measure. It is said that many TV anchors were paid up to four lakh rupees per month plus other perks.

Supreme Court’s street power: Malik Riaz denies that he made any payoffs. The media has lined up behind the Chief Justice, one channel broadcasting emotional songs supportive of him as the cynosure of moral correctness. It is now more or less universally accepted that the PPP government was behind the plot to discredit the Chief Justice. There is universal support for him spearheaded by Punjab where most of the street power of the lawyers – menacingly called wukla – is located, and can be counted on for brutality and vandalism. The two big leaders of Punjab Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan have vowed to take physical action against elements (read PPP) desiring the downfall of the Supreme Court. In Sindh, the lawyers are squarely behind the Chief Justice. So are those organised in their bars in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The Chief Justice will win this battle too and Malik Riaz might have to make good on his pledge of ‘I want to die’. Pakistan is internally divided as it stands alone in the world thumbing its nose at the US, its Nato partners and the global order. The Supreme Court has the support of those who have made themselves safe from the terrorists of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, the religious parties, and the nonstate actors. Terrorism threatens the government in power but the Supreme Court is safe because of the way it has handled the Lal Masjid case, the most important cause of Al Qaeda in Pakistan. NAB or FIA delving into the case of Dr Arsalan Iftikhar may find themselves assaulted in the streets of Punjab.

Courtesy: The Friday Times

http://www.thefridaytimes.com/beta3/tft/article.php?issue=20120622&page=3

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