The Supreme Court verdict for the case of Sheikh Rasheed’s disqualification is out and it appears that the self-claimed “Pindi Boy” will be back to contest elections from Rawalpindi this year. The SC bench ruled in favour of the AML chief, rejecting the petition for Raheed’s disqualification.
In the majority judgment, the judges further narrowed down the strict liability precedent that had been established in the Nawaz Sharif disqualification case. Rasheed’s mis-declaration of the money value of his properties was decided not to be in the ambit of disqualification and did not constitute concealment. Justice Azmat Saeed made a distinction between errors in the nomination papers and concealment, making the case on the fact that Rasheed did not gain any benefit by misdeclaring the property, and that he gave a reasonable explanation as to the error in the papers.
The fact that Rasheed was not disqualified is not surprising. The SC has been subtly limiting the strict liability and the broad interpretation of disqualification under A62 and A63. This can be seen in the rescuing of Imran Khan and Khawaja Asif, where the errors in declaration were not deemed to be fatal. It seems that the judges are also wary of imposing strict liability for declaration of assets and have construed the game on technicalities and on a case-by-case basis.
While we’re happy that the SC is limiting the ambit of disqualification, the recent judgments decided on technicalities somehow make the interpretation of A62 and 63 even vaguer. When will an error in nomination papers amount to disqualification and who will decide that? The recent judgements on disqualification, where the standard strict liability has been softened and candidates have been forgiven for errors, look like a contradiction next to the Panama judgment, where a wide interpretation for provisions of disqualification was adopted and technicalities were punished.
While the verdict was not unexpected, what was surprising was that this was a 2-1 decision. Justice Qazi Isa, in his dissenting opinion, addressed many of the problems in interpreting the disqualification provisions. He highlighted how the Court dealing with disqualification cases on a case-by-case basis would further confuse matters, and result in unequal and unfair outcomes. Here, he may be alluding to the allegation of bias levied on the Court, and interestingly could be constructed as a slight warning to his fellow judges of the dangers of legal uncertainty and how they undermine the credibility of the electoral process.