The Islamabad High Court (IHC) on Thursday decided to indict PTI chairman and former prime minister Imran Khan in contempt of court proceedings against him for passing controversial remarks against Additional District and Sessions Judge Zeba Chaudhry, calling his response “unsatisfactory”.
The verdict was issued by a five-member bench comprising Justice Athar Minallah, Justice Mohsin Akhtar Kayani, Justice Miangul Hassan Aurangzeb, Justice Tariq Mehmood Jahangiri and Justice Babar Sattar.
It stated that charges against the former prime minister will be framed after two weeks.
Immediately after the decision was announced, in an informal conversation with reporters outside the courtroom, Imran said he wanted to speak during the proceedings but was not allowed to do so.
The IHC had initiated contempt proceedings against Imran over his diatribe against Additional District and Sessions Judge Zeba Chaudhry, who had approved PTI leader Shahbaz Gill’s physical remand in a sedition case, at a public rally in Islamabad’s F-9 Park on Aug 20.
On Wednesday, the former premier had submitted a second reply to the court after the first was termed “unsatisfactory”.
‘Imran’s response justifying contempt’
During the hearing today, IHC Chief Justice Athar Minallah observed that PTI Chairman Imran Khan’s replies to the court’s show-cause notice appeared to be “justifying” contempt of the judiciary and showed “no remorse or regret”.
Imran’s counsel, Hamid Khan, said there was a difference between giving a justification and a clarification. “I am giving a clarification here.”
“Would you have submitted the same reply if these words were used for a Supreme Court or a high court judge?” Justice Minallah asked.
He highlighted that Imran was giving the justification that Gill was tortured while in police custody. “Tell us […] will the decisions be taken in rallies or the courts,” Justice Minallah inquired.
For his part, Imran’s lawyer said that all judges were deserving of respect.
Subsequently, Justice Minallah said that the judges of district courts were more important than those of the high court or Supreme Court.
“Often times, the matter is not as serious as it is understood to be,” Hamid contended, admitting that Imran didn’t use the word “action” in his diatribe against the female judge in the correct way.
‘Imran’s word were threatening’
Justice Sattar asked Imran’s counsel if legal action under the Contempt of Court Act could be publicly commented on.
Hamid replied that every citizen had the right to initiate legal proceedings, adding that the word action didn’t necessarily mean to threaten. “We assure the court that no one was threatened,” he maintained.
Justice Sattar also observed that the words used by Imran were “threatening”.
However, Imran’s lawyer argued that his client had stated multiple times that he was never against the judiciary. “He ran a campaign for the freedom of the judiciary,” Hamid pointed out.
He clarified that the PTI chairman’s aim was not to use harsh words against the female judge. However, Justice Sattar said that Imran was still trying to justify what he had said.
“There is a difference between a justification and a clarification. This is what I am trying to tell you,” Hamid contended.
To this, Justice Sattar asked: “Does Imran Khan want a fair trial? Is this why he has submitted this response?”
Imran’s lawyer replied that his client wanted the contempt case to be wrapped up.
‘Imran showing no remorse’
Justice Minallah observed that the former prime minister was taking a very “risky” stance. “The apex court had also warned Imran of contempt,” he recalled. “You are now once again saying that you won’t do this in the future.”
Justice Minallah reiterated that even now Imran wanted to justify his remarks, adding that the case of PML-N’s Nehal Hashmi was similar to the one at hand. “Nehal had not taken the name of any judge.”
Justice Minallah went on to ask why the judges of the lower courts were considered different to those of higher courts. “You are justifying contempt of court which means that you have no remorse or regret,” the judge observed.
Justice Sattar also noted that Imran had not shown any remorse through his behaviour. “Even after the speech and the contempt of court case, justifications are being given,” he said.
Justice Sattar asked that if the PTI would threaten “action” against the five judges hearing the case if he was not happy with their decision.
“Are you trying to say that what Imran said was right and that the world has perceived it to be wrong?” the judge asked.
During the hearing, Hamid also said that hurling a threat at the female judge was not Imran’s objective. “Imran has always stood up for the rights of women.”
Justice Minallah said the case was not about women’s rights but was about the judge of a lower court.
At one point, Justice Minallah remarked that he didn’t care if the courts or judges were sidelined. “But here, the matter is of criminal contempt on which notice is taken across the world. We will too,” Justice Minallah said, saying that this contempt could affect the people’s trust in the judiciary.
The judge recalled that Imran had called on his supporters to gather outside the court. “We have repeatedly told you to submit a well-thought out response.”
Imran’s counsel said that his client had used the word regret in his response on the court’s orders, once again asking the IHC to dismiss the case.
“We can assure the court that Imran Khan will be more careful in the future,” he said, concluding his arguments.
‘District court is a red line’
Taking the rostrum at the outset of the hearing, Imran’s lawyer pointed out that a revised reply was submitted to the court on Wednesday. He said that the new reply was submitted after taking the court’s directives at the last hearing into consideration.
Hamid said that two apex court judgements had also been attached with the reply. “We want this case to be wrapped up now,” he said.
Hamid also referred to the case of firebrand PML-N leader Daniyal Aziz, who was convicted by the SC in 2018 for contempt.
“At the previous hearing, the IHC had instructed us to review contempt cases in the SC,” he said, adding that the court had also referred to the cases of Aziz and Talal Chaudhry.
However, Imran’s case is different from the other two cases, Hamid said.
Here, Justice Minallah remarked that there were three types of contempt of court charges: judicial, civil and criminal.
“Those case do not fall under criminal contempt as they talked about the role of the court,” he said, adding that Imran had commented on a matter that was sub-judice.
“We have not initiated contempt proceedings in an attempt to scandalise the court,” the IHC CJ said. The also pointed out the criminal contempt was an offence that was “serious in nature”.
Justice Minallah said that ignorance was irrelevant in case of criminal contempt. “We had explained to you this this was [a case of] criminal contempt,” he remarked, adding that the PTI chief had been directed to think before submitting a reply.
“We are defenders of freedom of expression but incitement cannot be allowed,” Justice Minallah said.
He said criminal contempt of court was “a very sensitive matter”, adding that the district court was a “red line” for the court. He observed that the law had outlined a procedure for when a person was aggrieved by the judgement of the court.
Our society is so polarised that followers insult opponents in public places, Justice Minallah said. “If they do the same thing with a judge, then what will happen?” he asked.
He maintained that the independence of the judiciary was the court’s top priority. The court also asked Imran whether he tried to justify his actions in his reply submitted to the IHC.
“We have tried to provide an explanation and not a justification,” Imran’s counsel Hamid replied.
Reminding Imran of the court directives at the previous hearing, the IHC chief justice said: “The offence is serious in nature. We had explained it last time, but you did not understand.”
The IHC chief justice questioned whether a former prime minister could claim ignorance of the law as a defence.
‘Is ego more important than judiciary?’
In his arguments during the hearing today, Attorney General of Pakistan (AGP) Ashtar Ausaf said that he had the transcript and video recording of Imran’s speech.
“Even in his speeches later too, Imran had passed the same comments against the female judge,” he stated. “He thinks that if the SC forgave him once, it will do the same again and again.”
Ausaf also pointed out that Imran did not submit his response with an affidavit.
Meanwhile, Munir A. Malik, amicus curiae for the court, said the contempt law had been used to strengthen the judiciary. “It is true that there are judgments of the Supreme Court in contempt of court cases, but it is also true that this law is constantly evolving.”
He said that the words spoken outside the court could never impact the IHC.
“The words are disappointing, but not an obstacle to the dispensation of justice,” he added and opined that the contempt proceedings could either be quashed if an apology was tendered or better conduct was shown.
Malik, subsequently, requested the court to wrap the contempt case in light of the reply submitted by Imran.
In his arguments, Makhdoom Ali Khan, another lawyer assisting the IHC, said that public interest lied in both dispensing justice and the freedom of speech.
“In America, a president had called a court decision the worst,” he highlighted, going on that the judiciary there had shown restraint and taken out a second way out.
Here, Justice Minallah said that the same country had also suspended Donald Trump’s Twitter account for inciting followers. “This is the reason why we are saying the choice of words is very important for a political leader,” he said.
However, Makhdoom contended that the remarks of a leader, made at a rally, could not affect the court’s proceedings, saying that further time could be granted to the PTI leader.
“Imran should use the words of regret and apology in his detailed reply,” he said, urging the court to show “magnanimity and pardon Imran”.
To this, Justice Minallah asked if someone’s ego was more important than the prestige of the judiciary and pointed out that Imran did not even tender an unconditional apology in his response.
Subsequently, the judges took a five-minute break.
Imran arrives amid tight security
Imran arrived at the IHC prior to the hearing. He was swarmed by reporters as he made his way to the IHC amid tight security alongside Shibli Faraz and Faisal Javed.
Speaking to media outside the courtroom, Imran quipped that the security arrangements in place made him feel like Kulbhushan Jadhav — an Indian spy sentenced to death by Pakistan for his involvement in subversive activities in the country.
In response to a question about whether he will tender an unconditional apology, the PTI chief sarcastically said he would obtain a NOC from Matiullah Jan, a senior journalist, as he had more experience.
The decision to initiate contempt proceedings against Imran was taken by Justice Aamer Farooq while hearing a petition challenging Gill’s police remand.
On August 23, the court summoned Imran on August 31 and issued him a show-cause notice.
A day before the hearing, the former prime minister submitted a reply before the IHC wherein he expressed his willingness to “take back” his words about the judge if they were “regarded as inappropriate” and pleaded before the IHC that the judges who had agreed to initiate the case against him should consider withdrawing themselves from the bench as, according to him, they had pre-judged the matter.
However, the IHC had deemed the response to be “unsatisfactory” and asked the PTI chief to submit a “well-considered” response.
Following this, Imran on Wednesday submitted a fresh reply in the court. In the revised response, however, Imran stopped short of rendering an unconditional apology. He stated that “I have a profound regard and respect for this honourable court and its subordinate courts and judge”.
The fresh response stated: “The respondent [Imran Khan] takes this opportunity to express his deep regrets over his unintentional utterances during the course of his speech at a rally which was taken out in response to the shocking news of physical torture of Shahbaz Gill.
“The respondent never meant to hurt her [the judge’s] feelings and if her feelings have been hurt, it is deeply regretted. The respondent neither meant to threaten the lady judge nor could he think of doing so,” it added.
Imran assured the IHC that he would not “shy away from expressing his remorse to her. Those utterances were never meant to interfere with or in any way influence the course of administration of justice.”
According to the reply, the PTI chairman due to his busy schedule was not aware that the issue of Gill’s remand was a sub judice matter, and “after horrific news of physical torture” he unintentionally uttered these words against the judge.
“The respondent’s reference to the lady judge and other officers during his speech was spontaneous and in the spur of the moment and was not calculated to personally attack any judicial officer or the judiciary in any manner whatsoever.”
Imran also cited the statements of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif against the former chief justice of Pakistan and the judges of the apex court following his disqualification in the Panamagate case.
He stated that “the purpose of the contempt law is not to punish anyone but to uphold the majesty of law. The respondent believes in the rule of law and supremacy of the constitution.”
The PTI chief also beseeched the court to follow Islamic principles of “forgiveness and restrain” in the contempt of court case against him.