TV footage shows Chief Justice Saqib Nisar receiving a portrait of himself from student Abdullah Tanseer. Image Credit: Supplied

Islamabad: Pakistan Chief Justice Saqib Nisar will hold court for the last time on Thursday, drawing to a close a career that saw him handing down landmark verdicts, which affected the powerful as well as ordinary people.

During his term as the most senior judge from December 31, 2016 to January 17, 2019, Nisar remained a dynamic, vocal and proactive judge taking notice as well as action on a wide range of matters pertaining to public interest, human rights issues and matters pending for decades.

He was known for taking Suo Motu notice on a range of issues.

Sometimes he took Suo Motu on frivolous issues like the transfer of a police officer under political influence, the incident of a Gilgit-Baltistan minister pushing an airport officer at Islamabad airport or patients being charged exhorbitant fees at private hospitals.

He even took up the case of mobile phone airtime vendors charging members of the public extra money for top-ups.

However, many his Suo Motu notices won him appreciation across the country. In one case the justice intervened after a federal minister’s aides tortured a poor neighbour’s family and sent them to jail.

In another, he ordered the stay of execution of a mentally challenged convict in Lahore’s jail, while in a third case he handled the stopping of water companies from collecting hundreds and thousands of gallons of water against petty tax.

For millions of apolitical Pakistanis, Nisar did what was really the job of the government.

Private schools were directed not to charge fees during the three month holidays, medical colleges and universities were barred from raising tuition fees above a certain limit.

In another high-profile case, a former head of Pakistan Television and associate of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, Attaul Haq Qasmi, was directed to return millions of rupees to the government exchequer after it was determined he had been illegally appointed.

Not only Qasmi, the former Information Minister Pervaiz Rashid and a former principal secretary to the ex-PM were also imposed heavy fines.

Justice Nisar often reminded fellow judges not to take their jobs as merely an official duty, saying it was a great responsibility for which they would be held accountable.

Where his Suo Motu notices in matters of public interest won him praise countrywide and the poor masses welcomed his judicial interventions, his spontaneous outbursts and ‘raids’ on hospitals, police stations, lower courts and even development and construction sites drew the ire of political parties and their workers.

The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan People’s Party were particularly critical of his judicial activism and criticised him for doing others’ jobs.

In the last days of his tenure even the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) turned against him for repeatedly chastising Prime Minister Imran Khan, Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar and Finance Minister Asad Umar.

His initiation of Article 62 proceedings against Federal Minister Azam Khan Swati too made him a thorn in the flesh for the current government.

Justice Saqib Nisar didn’t spare prime ministers, chief ministers or politicians, nor did he forgive bureaucrats, police officers or military hierarchy of the country and reminded them they needed to deliver and they were getting salaries to serve the masses of Pakistan.

His remarks during proceedings of different cases were so pointed, pungent and piercing that they made headlines the next day and the political parties had to rush their spokespersons to give justifications/clarifications but by that time damage had been done.

Here are some of Nisar’s top decisions as chief justice:

1) Construction of new water reservoir

The highlight of Justice Saqib Nisar’s career was taking up water reservoirs issue as Pakistan is facing acute water shortage and it is feared by 2025 the country’s major water sources could go dry. Upon Justice Saqib Nisar’s initiative, a countrywide and at times international campaign was launched to raise donations and fund the groundwork for Mohmand Dam was launched. Billions of rupees were collected and the prime minister admitted that the country owed it to him for raising the matter.

2) Decision in Asia Bibi’s case

The acquittal of minority woman Asia Bibi, who was facing death row on blasphemy charges and was in jail for over a decade was a landmark decision. The case sparked countrywide protests but the decision stood and cases were registered against religious extremists. Asia Bibi has not yet been released but the court absolved her of the charges.

3) Proceedings against Federal Minister Azam Swati

A sitting minister was taken to task for influencing the transfer of a police officer for refusing his orders. Azam Swati who was Science & Technology Minister in Prime Minister Imran Khan’s cabinet sent his men to ‘teach a lesson’ to a poor neighbour whose cow had trespassed into his garden. Swati’s men not only tortured the family but also sent them to jail. The matter was later taken up by the Chief Justice and as a result the minister had to tender his resignation and disqualification proceedings against him are underway.

4) Action against infant formula milk and ‘mineral’ water companies

The chief justice ordered all infant formula/powdered milk manufacturing companies to clearly print on packaging of their products “it is not natural milk” and so-called mineral water companies to deposit Re 1 against one litre of water. He even restrained baby formula companies from using the word “milk” for their products.

5) Medical colleges and universities

His intervention in cases of exorbitant tuition fees being charged by medical colleges, and mushrooming of universities, is seen as another landmark decision in his career. Thousands of low-income families have benefitted from it.

Criticism

For all the good work, Justice Saqib Nisar faced criticism within and outside judiciary. Those who faced implications of his Suo Motu notices and decisions kept saying he was politically-motivated and targeted only one or two parties indirectly benefiting the ruling PTI. Instead of putting his own house in order, the chief justice unnecessarily intervened in matters pertaining to executive, his critics say.

Referring to the recent data issued by the Law and Justice Commission of Pakistan (LJCP), the critics of CJP say there is a backlog of 38,291 cases and, on average, over 1,000 cases are added to this pendency every month. Unfortunately, he failed to expedite the cases pending for years and owing to slow judicial process litigants suffered a great deal.