By Qamar Bashir
The First Information Report (FIR) is an extremely powerful political weapon. It is used with excessive brute force for the benefit of those in power who use this tool against their opponents. FIRs are utilized to arrest and detain people for questioning and investigation – torturing them, breaking their will, weakening their commitment, wearing them down, and rerouting the public’s attention – to defend the former before the police and judiciary.
The accused are harassed and humiliated, and media sensationalism damages their reputation, social standing, and public support even if they are not arrested. The accused and their families can be emotionally, financially, and psychologically stressed by the investigation and trial process, which can be slowed or sped up.
By filing over 76 FIRs against former PM Imran Khan, mostly on identical grounds and in different parts of the country, the elements in power are using FIRs quite effectively. Hamid Mir, who is a known critic of Imran Khan, stated in one of his recent analyses that all but one or two FIRs of Tusha Khana and illegal funding may have some basis, whereas the rest are baseless and frivolous (Bhondie) and lodged on flimsy grounds to derail his resolve for holding fair and transparent elections, and are likely to be quashed by the respective courts.
Our political history is unfortunately replete with instances of political victimization by registering false cases of corruption and anti-state allegations, which remained unproven in most of the cases. The founder and first President of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was a prime example of political victimization. He was incarcerated because he opposed the military regime. Benazir Bhutto was dismissed twice as Prime Minister on political motives, first by President Ghulam Ishaq Khan in 1990 and later by President Farooq Leghari in 1996. She was also the target of multiple assassination attempts, including the 2007 attempt that ultimately proved fatal.
Several FIRs were filed against Nawaz Sharif under various sections of the Pakistan Penal Code, such as Section 290 (public nuisance), Section 291 (continuation of nuisance after injunction to cease), and Section 440 (criminal conspiracy) (mischief committed after preparation made for causing death or hurt). He was also charged with assault and terrorism charges under the Anti-Terrorism Act. He was removed three times as Prime Minister primarily for political reasons. In a politically motivated order, the Supreme Court banned him from political office for life, and a NAB court convicted him of corruption and sentenced him in absentia to 10 years in prison. This appeared to be the end of his long and turbulent political career as a three-time leader, but speculation continues on how he will return with a vengeance to become the Prime Minister for a fourth time.
Asif Ali Zardari was imprisoned in the 1990s on politically motivated corruption charges. In 2018, Maryam Nawaz was arrested on similar grounds. Two members of the Pakistani National Assembly, Ali Wazir and Mohsin Dawar, were arrested in 2019 on charges of terrorism and inciting violence, and were targeted for opposing government policies. Unfortunately the list goes on and on and needs an entire book to enlist all such cases.
Pakistan however is not alone, as a number of other developing nations have also witnessed this malpractice, albeit for legitimate reasons. Several FIRs were filed against Narendra Modi, Rodrigo Duterte, Hosni Mubarak, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and Park Geun-hye, the former presidents of Brazil and South Korea – respectively a few remain scot free while some others were convicted and punished.
Multiple and out-of-jurisdiction FIRs filing is a serious offence in a majority of countries, including ours and India. It is punishable under Section 182 of the Indian Penal Code for a term of up to six months, a fine, or both. Under Section 182 of the Pakistan Penal Code, filing multiple FIRs or filing a FIR in a jurisdiction where the offence did not occur is punishable by imprisonment for a term of up to six months, a fine, or both.
In the Mst. Sughran Bibi vs. The State case, Islamabad High Court ruled categorically that only one FIR could be filed for a single offence. The court noted that the alleged incident occurred in Islamabad, and that the filing of FIRs in Lahore and Peshawar violated the Supreme Court’s order. The court termed it a “misuse of authority” and noted that the petitioners endured “mental torture, harassment, and fear for their lives and freedom”. The court subsequently suspended the FIRs and prohibited the police from arresting the petitioners in the case.
It is alleged that since such FIRs are filed by the front men of the establishment, who, in Pakistan, are untouchable and above the law; such frivolous, baseless, and out-of-jurisdiction FIRs are used with total impunity. If it is true then neither our law enforcement system or justice system have the grit, courage or means to resist their dictates. This elephant, if it is in the room, weakens the public policy-making and enforcing institutions. They are arm-twisted to obey the commands but cannot officially hold it responsible for failures of the public policy interventions.
Working in the power corridors all my life, I was always amazed to hear the President, Prime Minister, Ministers, and Secretaries dictate what should be done and what should not be done, even though they had the mandate, power, and means to do so. They always replied, “the Establishment is one who takes the final decision on all matters of public policy, and vetoes most of the proposals or kills their projects and initiatives.” It may not be true, but it allows everyone to blame the establishment for their actions and inactions. This anomaly may explain our toothless, inefficient, and ineffective civil institutions. The incumbent establishment has pledged to avoid political and civil matters and stick to their constitutional role. This is a game-changing decision, and the establishment should take all possible steps to disengage from civilian affairs in letter and spirit in a verifiable manner as soon as possible. The political leadership and civilian bureaucracy will no longer have a scapegoat for their failures, inactions, and incompetence, and the armed forces will gain credibility.
Idealistically, the party in power as well as the establishment should dissociate themselves from party politics because, once in power, it represents the entire population of a country and should treat all political parties, including its own, impartially. But it is easier said than done. On the one hand, distancing the government from party politics enables it to be more focused on the public interest and less beholden to narrow party interests. This thereby enhances the government’s credibility and public trust, while on the other hand, association with the party can provide a useful structure for organizing and coordinating government policies and implementing its agenda.
The government should treat its political opponents with respect, civility, and professionalism. It should also recognize the opposition’s right to express their views and engage in legitimate political activities without fear of retaliation, harassment, or persecution, establishing the rule of law, and refraining from using the criminal justice system to target political opponents.
We should have learned by now that in a democratic society, political opposition is a necessary and healthy component of the political process. Opposition parties serve as a necessary check and balance on the government , ensure that diverse viewpoints are represented, and that they contribute to the formulation of objective public policy. Therefore, the government should engage constructively and inclusively with its political opponents and seek to resolve political differences through peaceful means.
The government should also ensure that all political parties and actors have access to the political process and can compete on a level-playing field. This includes providing equal opportunities for political participation, ensuring freedom of speech and assembly, and promoting electoral transparency and accountability.
Similar principles should also apply to our legal and justice system, which should dispense justice without fear or favour, political bias or influence, and with complete impartiality strictly in accordance with the law.
Equal responsibility rests with opposition to refrain from using the legal system to advance their political agendas and instead focus on addressing the legitimate grievances and problems of the people they represent.
The government should also understand that political division and polarization lead to unrest, strife, and commotion, which benefits the opposition more and the government less. It creates socio-economic, security and safety concerns; increases despondency, despair and hopelessness; adversely impacts businesses, trade and investment; and discredits the country in the region and around the world.
In conclusion, governments should refrain from using brute state power to favour or oppose a political party, and uphold justice and fairness. They should encourage the justice and legal system to perform their duties independently, without fear or favour, and create an environment of dialogue, consultation, and negotiation to resolve pressing political, administrative, economic, financial, security and safety issues. Above all, the Establishment should stick to its decision to stay away from political and civilian affairs, reallocate its resources from these sectors to the country’s security and safety in a verifiable manner, and let politicians and civilian bureaucracy take full responsibility for public policy decisions, their implementation, and the consequences of their inefficiency, incompetency, and mistakes. (Edited by Khadijah Kamili)
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The writer is former Press Secretary to the President, and former Press Minister at the Embassy of Pakistan to France. He has presented his personal views in this article on the basis of years of professional experience.