Monday, March 12, 2012

National Security versus Civil Liberty

The threat of military intervention in political affairs has always loomed large in Pakistan.

Such intervention - whether through overt military rule or covert operations during democratic rule - has been frequently defended on the grounds of national security. Because the army is responsible for security, and because political actions have security implications, therefore the army must manage political affairs.

But a country needs more than mere security to thrive. There is also a need to protect political civil liberties such as freedom of speech and the right to a fair trial. Not to mention the freedom of assembly.

It is this particular freedom that the Mehrangate scandal revolves around. After all, the freedom to assemble and express popular will is useless if that popular will is replaced by the will of an army chief, an ISI chief, and a banker.

By choosing to hear the Asghar Khan case while Gilani's contempt-of-court case is ongoing, the Supreme Court has shown that it isn't unfairly targeting the civilian government and supporting the military in the battle between state institutions. Rather, the Supreme Court understands the importance of both a corruption-free civilian government and a restrained but effective military establishment.

Such a balanced approach has been on display on numerous occasions. At one point during the case hearing, the Chief Justice remarked that there were conflicting statements from all the players involved in the case and that, as a result, a judicial commission would be required to launch a full inquiry into the case.

The Supreme Court also displayed an understanding of unnecessary versus necessary national security concerns.

At one point, the counsel for Mirza Aslam Beg requested that the court proceedings be held behind closed doors in the interests of national security. However, the court refused the request and pointed out that most of the information relating to the case had already been laid bare. On another occasion, however, the Chief Justice requested that reports relating to the workings of security and intelligence agencies be kept confidential in the interests of national security.

Do such actions indicate a court intent on jeopardizing national security?

Contrast that with the actions of Beg. In the affidavit that he submitted to the court, Beg mocked the Supreme Court by thanking it for allowing Beg to complete a "hat-trick" of appearances before Chief Justices - an "honour" that no other Chief of Army Staff could claim. He mocked the Chief Justice by sarcastically referring to Chaudhry's "dynamic leadership".

Regardless of the truth of the allegations, it is clear that the Supreme Court understands the gravity of the situation while Beg doesn't.

What is troubling is that the case has taken 15 years to be heard. The players involved have long since lost their power. The events that are being discussed occurred 20 years ago. Even the petitioner of the case, Asghar Khan, has stated that he is only looking for a "symbolic" judgement from this case. Nonetheless, the public illumination of such state secrets will go a long way towards correcting the military establishment's perception that the fear of national insecurity can be used to continually abuse civil liberties.

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