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Speaking truth to power

On April 11, 2013 Pakistan lost one of its best judges and a national moral compass. While for many people an important public office brings greatness for them, in the case of Justice Samdani he brought greatness and dignity to the office of a judge. Justice Samdani is commonly known as “the judge who granted bail to Bhutto”. Yet this one single act was just a minor illustration of his greatness.

Bhutto got the bail because he deserved it and not because Justice Samdani was biased in his favour. We once talked about this and Justice Samdani was very matter of fact. In his view bail was an accused person’s right unless the prosecution could show good reasons for not granting bail. The presumption of bail in favour of the accused had not been rebutted so he granted bail to Bhutto.

Unlike many judges who then and even now reserve judgements in sensitive matters, Justice Samdani, to the surprise of many, went on to announce grant of bail to Bhutto in open court. It was clear that he was not going to take dictation or even risk to be seen to be taking dictation from anyone in dealing with Bhutto’s case.

This clearly did not sit well with the establishment, so Justice Samdani was appointed as secretary ministry of law. Returning to the executive was nothing new for Justice Samdani as he had passed the competitive examination and joined the civil service earlier in his career. As secretary law he was impeccable.

The most celebrated event during this assignment was Justice Samdani’s altercation with President Zia. These were still fairly early days of the military regime. In a meeting with top civil servants, President Zia laid all the blame for Pakistan’s ills with the civil service. He said that it would not be a bad idea to “pull down the trousers” of some top civil servants ie make an example of them.

At this point the diminutive Justice Samdani stood tall and spoke truth to power. While not disagreeing that some senior civil servants may share blame for what was wrong with the country, Justice Samdani suggested that it might not be a bad idea if the trousers of some generals were also pulled down in the process.

At this point an unscheduled tea break was called. Justice Samdani said that he had never felt so lonely in his life as during this tea break. He was left completely to himself. Many of his close and old civil service colleagues would not dare speak to him or stand next to him for fear of being associated with him.

Soon after this when Justice Samdani returned to the Lahore High Court, President Zia promulgated the notorious Provisional Constitutional Order 1981 that effectively abrogated the constitution and required judges to take a new oath. Justice Samdani refused to take the oath.

Zia, through several emissaries, sent word requesting him to take the oath but Justice Samdani refused. As he said to his friends, “An oath is not something that you take twice”. At that time he gave up the perks and privileges of a prestigious public office. Soon after he went into self-imposed exile in London and returned in the 1980s to legal practice.

He was elected president of the Lahore High Court Bar Association and practised as an advocate of the Supreme Court and also appeared in high courts other than the Lahore High Court.

As a junior lawyer I had the privilege of working and travelling with Justice Samdani. What always struck me was the respect and awe he enjoyed. We could not pass through an airport lounge without someone stepping forward to greet him and simply pay their respect. These were people from all walks of life and social strata.

For me this was astonishing as I saw corrupt public officials generally fêted and it seemed that people had lost their moral compass. In people’s affection and respect for Justice Samdani, I found hope that people still had regard for upright and bold public officials. This was confirmed when I worked with Justice Samdani in the training of civil judges under an Asian Development Bank project.

Civil judges were awed by him and took pride that their profession had produced such a courageous judge.

The movement for judicial independence that brought tens of thousands to the streets of Pakistan shows that people yearn for justice and will back officials who stand up in the face of power. This is a lesson not only for the judiciary but for all those who occupy public office or serve in government. Indeed the duty to speak the truth in the face of power is central to one’s own integrity and dignity. Justice Samdani often characterised this as part of one’s own self-respect and khudi.

More importantly as a leader he also understood the flip side of this; that one must allow others to disagree and correct one self. That is why it was a pleasure to work with Justice Samdani. He was always open to reason and listened to a good argument. Many in the judiciary and civil service have high regard for Justice Samdani. Their best tribute to him would be to live by his example in the discharge of their official duties.

The writer is country director, Asian Development Bank, People’s Republic of China and former partner in Justice Samdani’s law firm. The views expressed are his own and should not be attributed to ADB. Email: qanoon@gmail.com

Hamid L Sharif, "Speaking truth to power," The News. 2013-04-20.
Keywords: Political history , Political process , Government-Pakistan , High court , Judicial process , Supreme court , Judiciary , Judges , Justice Samdani , Gen Zia ul Haq , Zulfikar Ali Bhutto , Pakistan , Lahore , London , China