By Asif Shahzad and Alasdair Pal
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistan’s top court on Thursday gave the government six months to justify why it granted a controversial extension to the country’s army chief, in a rare case that pits the judiciary against the government and the military.
The cabinet of prime minister Imran Khan approved a three-year extension for General Qamar Javed Bajwa in August, citing a worsening national security situation in the region over its rivalry with India.
But in a surprise ruling on Tuesday, the Supreme Court suspended the extension, citing a series of irregularities and ordering the government and the army to produce legal provisions and detailed arguments on the reasoning behind the move.
On Thursday the court granted a temporary six-month extension to Bajwa’s tenure, due to end at midnight, but said the government must pass legislation through parliament in that time to clarify the section of Pakistan’s constitution governing the armed forces.
“We are showing judicial restraint although there is no provision in law to grant an extension,” Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa told the court. “We leave this matter to parliament to make law regarding this.”
Khan welcomed the verdict on Thursday.
“Today must be a great disappointment to those who expected the country to be destabilised by a clash of institutions,” he said in a tweet.
But despite giving a temporary reprieve over its handling of the extension, the episode could weaken the authority of the coalition government, led by Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, that now has to pass what is likely to be complex legislation on the military through parliament.
The civilian government has enjoyed good relations with the armed forces, in contrast to the previous government of Khan’s main rival Nawaz Sharif.
It has also led to questions about the future of Bajwa, who has led the military through a period of escalating tensions with India and western neighbour Afghanistan.
The abrupt decision of the court to suspend Bajwa’s extension, and the government’s reaction, has been branded “a comedy of errors” by Pakistan’s media, which is rarely critical of the military.
“This is without a doubt the most shambolic episode in the PTI government’s tenure so far,” said an editorial in Dawn, the country’s leading English-language newspaper on Thursday.
“Surely there are other officers more than capable of leading the army. General Bajwa’s next step will determine whether he is thinking of himself or his institution.”
Bajwa was commissioned as an army officer in 1980. As a general, he has served as a field commander of units stationed in the contested Kashmir region, where nuclear powers India and Pakistan have fought two wars since both won independence from colonial power Britain in 1947.
Upon his appointment by Sharif in 2016, a government minister told Reuters the then-prime minister had picked Bajwa because of his low-key style, and felt the incoming general would be more willing to cede control of key areas to the civilian government.
But during his tenure, the military has been accused by opposition politicians of electoral manipulation, meddling in politics, suspension of civil liberties and muzzling the media to help Khan win power last year. The military has always denied interfering in politics.
The army chief usually serves a three-year term. Since the role was established in 1972, only one general has had his term extended by a civilian government.
Pakistan’s powerful military has ruled the country for more than half of its 72-year history, and sets defence and security policy.
Justice Khosa, who clashed with Khan last week over the decision of a lower court to allow rival Sharif to travel abroad despite a corruption conviction, is himself due to retire on Dec. 20.
(Reporting by Asif Shazad and Alasdair Pal; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Catherine Evans)