Pakistan: Ex PMs, journalist appear in court on treason charges

Hearings in a treason case against Almeida and two former prime ministers Sharif and Abbasi under way in Lahore.

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    Sharif was dismissed as prime minister on corruption charges last year and subsequently jailed [Mohsin Raza/Reuters]
    Sharif was dismissed as prime minister on corruption charges last year and subsequently jailed [Mohsin Raza/Reuters]

    Lahore, Pakistan - A Pakistani court has withdrawn arrest warrants issued against a prominent journalist and ordered travel restrictions on him be removed, as hearings in a treason case against him and two former prime ministers continue.

    On Monday, a three-member bench of the Lahore High Court adjourned proceedings in the case against former Prime Ministers Nawaz Sharif and Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, as well as journalist Cyril Almeida.

    Sharif is accused of committing "treason" for implying that Pakistan's military and intelligence services allowed attackers involved in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which killed more than 160 people, to operate with impunity.

    "Militant organisations are active. Call them non-state actors, should we allow them to cross the border and kill 150 people in Mumbai? Explain it to me. Why can't we complete the trial?" Sharif said in the interview with Almeida published in Dawn newspaper in May.

    Sharif was dismissed as prime minister on corruption charges last year, and subsequently jailed after being convicted by an anti-corruption court. Last month, Sharif, his daughter Maryam and son-in-law Muhammad Safdar were released on bail in that case as their appeals continue to be heard.

    Almeida was named in the petition as having allegedly abetted Sharif. Former PM Abbasi, who succeeded Sharif, is accused of having leaked national security secrets to Sharif.

    'A worrying precedent'

    Last month, the court ordered Sharif to appear before it for the hearing, issued arrest warrants for Almeida and placed international travel restrictions on him.

    On Monday, the court appeared to take a more lenient view, as Almeida appeared before the bench personally.

    "The [restrictions] were only to ensure that he was present," judge Mazhar Ali Akbar Naqvi told a packed courtroom, where Abbasi and Sharif were also present. 

    The court ordered the government to provide a formal reply on whether or not it was prepared to move ahead with placing treason charges against the former prime ministers.

    Under Pakistani law, the court cannot indict the three accused on treason charges unless the federal government has filed those charges.

    "You are not being fair," said judge Masood Jehangir, accusing the government of dawdling over framing a course of action. It ordered the attorney general to appear at the next hearing to be held on October 22.

    The hearing on Monday failed to adjudicate on the maintainability of the petition.

    Rights groups have criticised the court for holding hearings in the case, and particularly for summoning Almeida.

    After the last hearing, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said the case was setting a worrying precedent for press freedom in the country.

    "The ease with which Mr Almeida's interview with the former Prime Minister was perceived as an attempt to allegedly defame state institutions, and the pace at which this has spiralled into charges of treason, only serve to further choke press freedom in Pakistan," HRCP said in a statement.

    On Monday, former PM Abbasi said the case against the three accused was baseless.

    "There is no case," he told Al Jazeera in the courtroom, minutes before the hearing got under way. "This is an entirely frivolous petition."

    Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera's digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.

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