This month saw the release from prison of the deeply controversial former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif along with his daughter Maryam and son-in-law, Captain (retired) Safdar Awan. While the move has been welcomed by hardcore supporters of Nawaz’s PML-N party, the move has been criticised by a substantial number of Pakistanis under the guise that it has let members of an infamously corrupt family off the hook after many had hoped they would face long term justice from behind bars. However, with the deeply anti-Nawaz Prime Minister Imran Khan now firmly in power as the new Prime Minister, what it does demonstrate is that the High Court in Islamabad has made an independent decision that neither the government nor the allegedly anti-Nawaz establishment (military) have attempted to interfere in.
While Pakistanis continue to debate the merits of freeing Nawaz and his kin at a time when they are charged with widespread acts of corruption, no one can argue that in acting in a manner which defies popular opinion in the country as a whole (the PML-N was rejected in favour of the upstart PTI), one which rejects the wider position of the new government, as well as the perceived views of the establishment, that the court has been unduly influenced by any other formal or informal branch of government. This means that the High Court acted with judicial independence and even those who disagree with the court’s decision have come to agree with this on the whole.
This development is highly notable as Pakistan, like its neighbours has had a history of highly politicised court decisions made by judges whose own fortunes were often determined by their relationship with powerful political and establishment elites. This reality meant that the judicial independence of Pakistan’s highest courts was often called into question both by Pakistanis and by international observers.
Today though, as Pakistan’s relationship between government and establishment matures under the PTI government, so too does it appear that the relationship between the judiciary and other branches of government is maturing after decades of often tumultuous and difficult attempts at co-existence. There is more work to be done in this respect without a doubt, but nevertheless, Pakistanis who have long sought a more modernised separation of branches of government have much cause for relief.
On the other side of the world in the United States, one finds a nation that is still home to multiple commentators who openly criticise south Asian judicial systems for being overly politicised and too linked up with the interests of other branches of government. Without a doubt, such people are presently the proverbial occupants of the world’s largest glass house who are busily engaged in a contest to see who can throw the largest stone.
The reason that the US has less and less credibility when criticising the judicial independence of any foreign nation is because an erstwhile apolitical or at least broadly tame event – the Senatorial conformation of a new pick for Supreme Court judge, has become a circus like atmosphere of ultra-partisan accusations and grandstanding. Yesterday saw the United States plunge to the depths of politicising its judicial process in full public view. The hearing to confirm Donald Trump’s new Supreme Court pick Brett Kavanaugh was in reality more like a public show trial that had everything to do with sexual encounters, deranged lifestyles, alcohol fuelled wild parties and little to do with any sense of attaining Kavanaugh’s philosophy on law and justice.
Anyone familiar with various scandals throughout south Asia ranging from charges of blasphemy to working for neighbouring regimes will realise that in the 21st century, Americans accusing a judge of being sexually perverse and long time drunk are analogous to for example accusing a Pakistani jurist of blasphemy or secretly working for RAW, the Indian intelligence service.
In this sense, while Pakistan is currently moving forward in respect of streamlining its defined and de-facto branches of government, in the US, an elected President appears to be pushed and pulled by the un-elected de-facto “deep state”, while at the same time his Senate opposition subjected his Supreme Court nominee to a kind of show trial that had everything to do with party politics and related matters of petty personality while being completely devoid of any substance.
Just as questions of judicial independence have often been drawn along partisan lines in Pakistan’s past, so too is the matter of Brett Kavanaugh now more or less entirely formed along partisan lines between supporters of Trump and his opponents in the Democratic Party.
The geopolitical significance of this is that while the United States has often hid behind a cloak of never accurate exceptionalism in respect of somehow being a more honest, functional and fair nation than every other in the world, the truth is that for most of the 20th century, the United States was merely the wealthiest nation in the world. In terms of other virtues, the title for “the best” was spread far more widely throughout the world than even today most Americans of any party political affiliation are willing to admit.
Of course, Pakistan remains one of the nations most publicly maligned in US political rhetoric in spite of decades of an alliance that got the US everything it asked for while only helping to spread cross-border terrorism into vulnerable provinces of Pakistan at a tremendous cost to both the people and security apparatus of the state.
Therefore, the primary lesson in this story is that domestic political realities are never set in stone – they are constantly evolving, however gradually. Because of this, the geopolitical perceptions of other nations must be updated when necessary in order for the correct impression to be garnered by an observing party. In this sense, while the US used to mock and ridicule Pakistan’s lack of judicial independence. The last several weeks have proved that in 2018, Pakistan’s judiciary is making strides towards judicial independence in a major way while the United States continues to descend into the swamp of politicising its judiciary and turning its wider political debate into a giant gossip magazine.