Jun 15, 2009

A plea to the Lord Chief Justice By Ardeshir Cowasjee

We request Your Lordship to right the wrong, and come to the aid of these children of a lesser god who cannot stand up to the juggernaut of corruption and the ‘Milbus’ empire. — APP/File Photo ACCUSATIONS are often made against me and fellow commentators that we are pessimistic, that we do not give solutions.

Well, it is impossible to exude optimism with the national scenario fraught with multiple potential dangers, with the millions of lives that have been wrecked, and the hundreds being killed each day that passes. There is nothing we perceive, nothing we can foresee, that can cheer us up — a black hole yawns ahead. As for solutions, one that comes to mind is demolish all we have and start anew.

President Barack Obama in his inaugural address aimed well: 'To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history'.

Karachi is no stranger to corruption and deceit — as these days it is no stranger to death, with the daily gunning down of political opponents. Less dangerous is the land-grabbing that continues, without let-up, which is having a disastrous effect on the city and endangering its future.

Through the columns of this newspaper, I am yet again making an appeal to the good Chief Justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, to come to the aid of an endangered playground and the children of a deprived area of Karachi. It seems he is the only one who can now help. The citizens of Karachi are not requesting Your Lordship to adjudicate on the merits of the case. Our petition to you is that you adjudicate on the manner in which the case was dismissed arbitrarily and ex-parte.

Webb Ground (Plot 148) in Tunisia Lines was a 4.98-acre playground that catered to the children of the low-income residents of this area. Ownership rests with the City District Government Karachi (CDGK) through Lines Area Re-Development Project (LARP)

(Sir Montague de Pomeroy Webb, after whom the playground is named, was a contemporary of my grandfather Fakirjee Cowasjee and was above all a gentleman and a benefactor of those in want. He was a governor of the Grammar School, he founded the KESC and the Daily Gazette — the list is long.)

The brief facts are as follows: the army, realising the value of this large plot in the city centre, put the ownership claim into dispute and in December 2002 forcibly occupied the plot, depriving the low-income area residents of their playground. The Ministry of Defence then leased out the plot to the Army Welfare Trust (AWT), which in 2006 further sub-leased it to Makro-Habib to establish a commercial ‘hyper-store’.

In August 2007, Mr Mehfooz-un-Nabi Khan, an area resident and an ex-councillor of the KMC, filed CP D-1740/2007 in the High Court of Sindh against Makro-Habib, AWT, CDGK, LARP & Ors. On 22-08-07 the case was heard and an ad-interim stay against further construction was given. However, the honourable judges, Sarmad Usmany and Ali Sain Dino Metlo, realising that Mr Mehfooz-un-Nabi Khan is a person of limited financial resources and legal experience, also issued notice to the NGO Shehri-CBE to assist the court in the proper adjudication of the matter.

From the next hearing onwards, Shehri attended each hearing and submitted five written statements together with various maps and documents establishing the ownership of the plot with LARP and its status as a playground. Shehri was present at the Nazir’s inspection, and submitted objections to his report.

When the owners of Makro-Habib continued construction in violation of the status-quo order, Shehri took photographs, at considerable risk to its members, to bring the violations to the court’s notice. The documents and photos are part of the case record. On 26-09-07, contempt application CMA 7498/07 was listed for hearing.

Through an order of 19-09-07, the court itself confirmed the status of Shehri as a co-petitioner. Twelve hearings were held from 04-09-2007 through 03-11-2007, up to 24-01-08.

From 24-01-08 no hearing of the case was held. It was discharged before it could come up for hearing, as it was always listed low on the serial list. After a passage of almost eight months, without the case being heard during the intervening period, it was listed for hearing on 19-08-08 without giving notice to the petitioners. The judges gave an ex-parte order dismissing the petition. This was highly unusual as Civil Miscellaneous Applications for contempt and a stay order (CMA 6375/07 & 7498/07) filed by the petitioner were already listed for hearing. The judges acted in undue haste.

This would seem to be unfair play and undue favour to the legal team of Makro-Habib headed by lead counsel Justice (retd) Mushtaq Memon. Since both petitioners, Mr Mehfooz-un-Nabi and Shehri, were appearing without the benefit of legal counsel, they were not aware of the case being fixed for hearing as only advocates and counsels are sent daily court lists. Taking advantage of their absence through no fault of theirs, the legal team of Makro-Habib managed to extract an ex-parte order.

Shehri was never a party to the case. It was the court itself that had decided that Shehri should be made a co-petitioner, as it would be able to assist the court in the proper adjudication of the controversy. So, should the court not have issued notices on 19-08-08 to both the petitioners? They were not aware of the listing of the case after a passage of eight months as both were appearing without the benefit of counsel.

The various written statements, objections, and stay and contempt applications were listed for hearing and should have been heard with prior notice.

As Shehri was present at each hearing prior to the last hearing, should the judges not have sent notice to Shehri before dismissing the case, since it was the court itself that had called in Shehri in the first place, and it was Shehri that had provided all the evidence against Makro-Habib and AWT? Shehri was not even made aware of the case being dismissed ex-parte. It was only after the passage of a few months that it learnt of what had transpired.

In light of the above, and after perusal of the order sheet, Your Lordship will realise that justice has not been served, and that it was deliberately manipulated to suppress the facts and favour the rich and mighty at the expense of the poor and illiterate slum dwellers of the Lines Area, rightly referred to as children of a lesser god.

We request Your Lordship to right the wrong, and come to the aid of these children of a lesser god who cannot stand up to the juggernaut of corruption and the ‘Milbus’ empire.

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