Footprints : Sympathy for the model

Famous Model Ayaan Ali coming for a hearing of Money Laundering Case, in Rawalpindi. —OnlineFamous Model Ayaan Ali coming for a hearing of Money Laundering Case, in Rawalpindi. —Online

THE special court for customs, excise and taxation has been derided by beat reporters for being a place where nothing exciting ever happens. But then, the court has probably never seen a suspect as glamorous as Ayyan Ali before, and on days when she is due to appear here, the courtyard of these judicial premises resembles a small carnival.

News channel DSNGs parked outside the premises are always a sure-shot indicator of whether the supermodel is due to appear in court on that day or not. TV reporters loiter around as their cameramen set up shop in the early hours of the morning. Even dyed-in-the-wool veterans, who shun the drudgery of everyday court reporting, show up happily and can be seen munching on tea and biscuits. That is, until a fellow reporter announces her arrival.

Ms Ali is brought to court on prison transport. Sub-Inspector Pervez Mukhtar is the Punjab police officer responsible for ferrying her from Adiala jail to the court and back again and has great regard for his charge. “She is very soft-spoken,” he says as he explains how he has to be at the prison at 7:30am on mornings when the model is due in court.

Also read: FBR investigators summon Ayyan’s mother

“She’s usually ready by the time I get to Adiala. We bring her to court on an ordinary prison van and she sits in the back. It’s not air-conditioned, but she’s never complained. She doesn’t ask for any special treatment.”

As soon as she arrives, she is taken to the bakshikhana — or barracks — located on court premises. Other suspects are usually made to wait outside the courtrooms until their case is called, but if similar treatment was meted out to Ms Ali, the resulting melee would no doubt be uncontrollable.

Meanwhile, in the courtroom, lawyers have already marked their seats even before the case is called. Age is no bar, but today, the young lawyers who usually attend hearings to brush up on their legalese are more interested in catching a glimpse of the woman on trial.

Ms Ali is brought to the court at around 10am and everyone present silently thanks the duty judge for his propensity to adjourn the supermodel’s hearings, rather than indicting her. But duty judge Sabir Sultan can only do so much: he is hearing the case in a caretaker capacity, as a full-time judge has not been assigned to the case.

The case begins and it is immediately clear that many of those in the room are only there in hopes of rubbing shoulders with the ‘it girl’ of Adiala. Ms Ali herself tries to put up a brave face; she smiles at the lawyers and customs officials who she sees on a regular basis but keeps her hands firmly clasped.

Her countenance in court, though nowhere as bombastic as her persona on the ramp, shows that she has made peace with her situation and has developed a working relationship with the people who accompany her to court. Her garb also reflects more comfort: at her first hearing, she was fully covered in a burqa, but in her appearance on May 8, she looked far more comfortable in her jeans and a black top.

Even though the judge could have swiftly adjourned proceedings after ordering the prosecution to hand her counsel the complete case documents, he reconvened the court just after noon, because customs officials wanted to meet with her, in private.

With the hearing over, she is escorted back to the prison transport by SI Mukhtar and her entourage of policemen and women and life at the court returns to its arduous normality. But there are downsides to the media frenzy; many outlets have been misreporting the very nature of the case itself.

“This is a currency smuggling case, not a money laundering case,” Khurram Latif Khosa, one of Ms Ali’s lawyers, explains. She is being tried under sections of the Customs Act, 1969 and the Foreign Exchange Regulations of 1947, which are related to the charge of exporting money illegally. “Money laundering is different, because it was her own wealth and not ill-gotten monies that she was trying to carry out of the country.”

Lawyers who deal with similar cases in the customs court are sympathetic, saying that other suspects have simply been let off with fines or nominal jail time. According to customs prosecutor Amin Feroz, a convict may get up to 14 years in prison in such cases, but over the last few years, only one accused had been awarded a five-year term for currency smuggling.

The sympathy is prevalent among most of Ms Ali’s fans at the court, and is best summed by Amjad Ali Khan, a litigant. Sipping a scalding cup of tea, he muses, “I wonder how our leaders can get away with transferring billions of dollars to their Swiss bank accounts, but one young woman is caught and punished for trying to carry out a comparatively measly amount.”

Unlike most legal questions asked in court, such queries have no concrete answer.

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