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Govt disputes ‘IHC judge’s letter’ alleging interference in audio leaks case

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ISLAMABAD: The federal government on Tuesday disputed the contents of a leaked letter, purportedly penned by Islamabad High Court’s (IHC) Justice Babar Sattar, alleging that security agencies used “intimidatory tactics” in a case pertaining to audio leaks being heard by the high court.

Earlier today, a snippet from a leaked letter allegedly attributed to the high court judge circulated on social media, with the PTI saying it highlighted “interference in audio leak case”.

The snippet stated that in the audio leaks case, the IHC had put on notice the heads of state intelligence agencies and institutions, ministries and media regulators.

“The question before the court is whether there exists a legal regime permitting surveillance of citizens,” said the letter addressed to the IHC chief justice. “At some point during the hearing of the case, I was delivered messages on behalf of top officials in the security establishment asking me to ‘back-off’ from extensive scrutiny of the existence and mode of surveillance.

“I paid no heed to such intimidatory tactics and did not find that such messages created a risk of substantial detriment to the administration of justice. The current malicious campaign’s focus on cases involving PTA (Pakistan Telecommunication Authority) appears to be an intimidatory tactic to influence court proceedings.”

The development comes amid proceedings underway in the IHC on alleged audio leaks and a separate case on contempt proceedings on a social media campaign targeting the judge, as well as suo motu proceedings in the apex court on alleged interference by intelligence agencies in judicial affairs.

Addressing a press conference in Islamabad on the matter, Attorney General of Pakistan (AGP) Mansoor Awan, without naming Justice Sattar, said the contents of the letter from an IHC judge to IHC Chief Justice Aamer Farooq had surfaced, saying that it was an “internal communication” of the court.

“The contents of that letter are being reported in such a way and the impression is being given as if there is interference in the IHC and that a message was sent to that judge regarding a specific case, or he understood it this way, or it was sent from such an individual which it should have not.”

The AGP said he felt it necessary to provide an explanation on the matter, saying that the judge himself said in the leaked snippet that he did not feel intimidated with the message, “however he understood it”, to be an act of interference in the principles of justice.

“His (the judge) reference in the letter was to the social media campaign [against him]. But because this is a matter that is now out in the media, I, as the AGP, felt it necessary to explain the matter because a perception is being created that there is some breakdown in relations between the judiciary and the executive because of which the issue is moving forward.”

The AGP said there were some “sensitive matters” of the state where it was necessary to have communication between different institutions. He added that it was the AGP’s office or the provincial advocate generals who forwarded such communication.

“I should make it clear regarding this case that a request was made that the briefing regarding our capability on surveillance and other matters about national security, internal and external, be made in-camera so it (the capabilities of security agencies) does not go into the public domain.”

He said that for a country such as Pakistan that has hostile neighbours, it was necessary to ensure that such information was not made public.

“A communication certainly happened but what unfortunately occurred was that the impression was somehow sent or understood as if the case should be taken in a particular direction. There was absolutely nothing of this sort.”

The AGP said his office and the advocate generals functioned as bridges for “legitimate” requests between institutions, adding that neither the government nor any other state institution could interfere in the matters of judiciary.

“I completely reject this perception.”

The AGP added that as per his information, no official from any security institution had made such kind of direct contact and nor could they do so, saying that it was his own office that had initiated the contact to request that sensitive information be shared in in-camera hearings only.

He called on the media to present the “proper context” of the letter.

Shortly after, Law Minister Azam Nazeer Tarar and Information Minister Attaullah Tarar also addressed a press conference on the letter in Islamabad.

Azam said that an impression was given by the snippet that “Pakistan’s intelligence or defence institutions want to somehow or are interfering in the working of judges”.

Reiterating the AGP’s claim of a request made to keep surveillance capability-related briefings in-camera for the audio leaks case, Azam expressed agreement with Awan’s stance and said: “This is a law all over the world and over here too and it should be as well.

“This is the reason why when you communicate through law officers or the officers of the AGP or advocate generals, then it is traditionally a better course for such requests to keep some matters in-camera.”

Azam said the courts had always heeded such requests and should continue to do so as well since it was in the wider public interest.

“What I’m pained by is the interpretation of this matter in such a way that the impression was created as if there is interference in the judiciary.”

Presenting the government and institutional stance, the law minister said that an independent judiciary was the one to take the country forward but it also had some responsibilities considering the country’s context and challenges.

“All institutions should have some space for each other [otherwise] we should work in our own domains. If some institution wants to do the job of the executive, defence and Parliament and we have to place all the burden on the judiciary and if we wish to solve every matter in the courts for them to decide how legislation and appointments should happen and what the country’s foreign and internal security policy is then this cannot be.

“This is neither the Constitution’s will nor are countries like this. The country needs unity to escape this financial crisis.”

Meanwhile, Attaullah said: “If a message by the AGP, who is the state representative, is sent to have an in-camera briefing then writing a letter on it saying: ‘I’ve been told to back off,’ after misconstruing it and taking it out of context is not at all rooted in reality.

“If a request was made for an in-camera briefing then it was for national security and I want to make it clear that there will be no compromise on national security.”

Without naming the IHC judge, the information minister said: “Do not take this matter this far. Understand that the issue is of national security and raising a question on the entire system of national security based on this one matter [is not right].”

The minister said that issues of national security should not be highlighted in letters like this.

“If you want to discuss some issue then the chief justice can summon a full court and you have full access. To write a letter to the chief justice of the same court with whom you have daily meetings is I think akin to making the issue controversial.”

He said the AGP had clarified the matter entirely, reiterating that there would be no compromise on national security.

“No one said to you to back off, only a request was made for an in-camera briefing.”

Meanwhile, former president Dr Arif Alvi said: “Very important new written comment by Justice Babar Sattar. It is evident to all except those who choose to ignore, that judges have been under tremendous pressure.”