The independence of Pakistan’s judiciary has been called into question after the emergence of an audio recording in which a former chief justice is allegedly heard admitting that pressure was brought to bear in a case against the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter to aid the rise of the current office holder, Imran Khan.
The recording, which has not been independently verified by the Guardian, has triggered an uproar in Pakistan and once again drawn scrutiny towards the country’s courts, which have long been tainted by accusations of meddling by the military.
In the audio clip, Saqib Nisar, the former chief justice, is allegedly heard saying: “Let me be blunt about it: unfortunately it is the institutions who dictate judgments.”
The reference to “institutions” has been taken to mean the military, which holds a tight grip over politics in Pakistan even though the country is technically ruled by a civilian government.
Nisar then allegedly goes on to say: “In this case we will have to penalise Mian Sahib,” referring to Sharif. He adds that “regardless of merit”, the judgment in the case will go against Sharif and his daughter.
Sharif was sentenced to 10 years in prison for corruption and his daughter Maryam Nawaz to seven years in the 2018 case referred to on the tape. The case related to money laundering and the ownership of luxury property in London.
Nisar says it is in order to “bring in Khan Sahib”, which has been interpreted as referring to the current prime minister in deferential terms.
In the tape, the judge also appears to be heard acknowledging that Nawaz does not deserve to be convicted, adding: “I did talk to friends that something be done about this but they did not agree. There will be no independence of the judiciary, so let it be.”
It is not clear who was being spoken to on the tape.
Nisar has responded to the allegations by saying the audio recording is a fake, and he has denied any wrongdoing. “It is fabricated. I have never talked to anyone on this matter. This is a campaign against me,” he said.
The clip was originally obtained by the Pakistani investigative news site Fact Focus this month, who sent it to be verified by an independent US-based forensic company, Garrett Discovery.
Garrett Discovery reported that the recording it was sent had not been manipulated, tampered with or edited. However, the origins of the recording remain unknown, and Garrett could not verify whether it was an original recording or a secondary recording of audio that may or may not have been manipulated.
The company said that since it had authenticated the audio, it had received threats of violence and calls to retract its verification.
Three days after the recording was revealed, the former wife of Ahmad Noorani, the journalist who published the audio, was attacked in Lahore by an unknown assailant and her car was damaged. Police are investigating the matter. It is not clear if the incident is linked to the audio recording, as Noorani has alleged.
Despite the judge’s denials, the appearance of the audio has set off a firestorm around Khan’s government. Khan, a former cricketer turned politician, has been known for his close ties to the military. Under his rule the military has retained significant power in what is now viewed as a hybrid civilian-military regime. Khan and the military have denied these accusations.
If authenticated, the recording may confirm that the military put pressure on the judiciary to convict the former prime minister, to remove Sharif as a political obstacle to Khan, who was elected later that year.
“This audio provided more substance to the accusation that Khan was installed in government by the powerful non-political forces,” said Hamid Mir, one of Pakistan’s foremost journalists and commentators.
Sharif’s party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, demanded a thorough investigation of the audio clip, and Islamabad high court has been asked to create an independent commission to ascertain its authenticity and investigate the former prime minister’s conviction.
“Unfortunately, the history of Pakistan is full of judges who have enfeebled the rule of law by collaborating with military dictators,” said Nawaz. “No single government in the entire history has been allowed to complete its tenure. This instance is no exception.”
Fawad Chaudhry, Pakistan’s information minister, said the government could not investigate the issue as it was now a matter for the courts.
Ali Ahmed Kurd, a senior lawyer and former president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, said Pakistan’s history was littered with politicians and prime ministers imprisoned on wrong charges by judges.
“What some judges have done, from hanging [the former prime minister] Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to convicting Sharif, is part of our bleak history but it has to change now,” he said. “The alleged audio leak should be investigated and the judiciary should remain impartial.”