Justice Ali Nawaz Chowhan: A Legacy of Legal Excellence and Humility

Justice Chowhan passed away on the weekend at the age of 77 after suffering a heart attack

Justice Ali Nawaz Chowhan: A Legacy of Legal Excellence and Humility

This weekend Pakistan lost an internationally renowned jurist, Justice (retired) Ali Nawaz Chowhan, who passed away at the age of 77 after suffering a heart attack.

Considered to be amongst the gentlest and humblest of people despite having occupied some of the top legal positions around the world and stared down major criminals, he was laid to rest in Rawalpindi on Monday.

The local who took Pakistan international

Justice Chowhan hailed from Rawalpindi. More than justice, his family played a critical role in developing the modern city of Rawalpindi.

His grandfather, Chaudhry Waris Khan Chowhan, served as the vice president of the Rawalpindi Municipality under the British. Such were his services that the city remembers him to date, with the Waris Khan market in the city's centre and the adjoining police station named after him.

Justice Chowhan's father, Chaudhry Mola Dad, succeeded where his grandfather had not, becoming the first Muslim mayor of Rawalpindi under the British. He kept it a charge even after the Partition until October 1958, when Field Martial Ayub Khan imposed martial law.

For his part, Justice Chowhan had perhaps greater ambitions and sought to serve the public in a different field: justice. He worked as a district and sessions judge in various districts nationwide, including Islamabad.

In 1977, Justice Ali Nawaz Chowhan became a district judge. In the subsequent years, he continued to dispense justice in the lower courts even as he continued his legal studies, obtaining diplomas in Shari'ah and Law from the International Islamic University, Madina Munawara, and Jamia Ummal Qura, Mekka, Saudi Arabia. He also obtained International and Administrative Law training from Columbia University in New York.

Around 20 years later, he was elevated to the Lahore High Court as an additional judge in 1999. He remained in the LHC until 2005. 

Having seen most of the military governments that ruled the country until then, Justice Chowhan stepped outside Pakistan for a while. He took up a position as a judge for the former state of Yugoslavia in 2006 and served there for three years. Four years on, his international stature grew further as he joined UNESCO as a judge in 2010. He served as the Alternate Chairman of the Unesco Appeal (Judicial) Board in Paris. 

In the years thereafter, he became the only judge from Pakistan to serve as a judge in the International Court of Justice (ICJ). On March 6, 2014, Justice Chowhan became the Chief Justice of Gambia and served there for a little over a year until May 12, 2015. He acquitted former Gambian naval chief Sarjo Fofana during his tenure in a treason case. Fofana was a co-accused in a coup plot against Gambian President Yahya Jammeh over a decade ago and had been under arrest since 2006. In the same case, Mr Chowhan — hearing an appeal against the conviction of former Gambian army chief Lang Tombong Tamba — upheld the latter’s conviction, which had been announced by the high court in 2013. The cases led to differences between Justice Chowhan and Jammeh, and the former decided to step down and return to Pakistan

Upon his return, he was appointed inaugural chairman of the National Commission on Human Rights (NCHR) in 2015. 

Even when he was abroad, Justice Chowhan did not forget his homeland, serving as a consultant on legal affairs, administrative law and International Law to then-president Asif Ali Zardari.

He remained affiliated with the National Institution of Public Administration in Lahore,  the Federal Judicial Academy in Islamabad and the Pakistan Cabinet Division in different capacities. 

The government named a road in his honour, the Ali Nawaz Chowhan Road 
near Murree Road in Rawalpindi. 

Of humility and respect for human relationships

Early one morning in 2019, the phone of Shan Ali Komboh rang. Komboh was a law student at a university in Islamabad who would go on to become a lawyer. He picked up the phone only to hear a familiar voice offer an apology from the other end. 

"I apologize to you and the varsity's administration for facing trouble because of my gold pen, which I have found in my car," remarked the sheepish voice on the other end. The voice belonged to Justice (retired) Ali Nawaz Chowhan. Although a celebrated judge of international repute with a storied career in the Lahore High Court and then working as a judge in international courts before helming the Supreme Court of Gambia. 

"Actually, I was emotionally attached to that pen because it had been gifted to me by my very dear son, Qasim Ali Chowhan," he added. 

The incident of the golden pen took place at a time when Justice (retired) Chowhan was teaching International Criminal Law at one of the renowned universities of Islamabad. 

Barrister Qasim Ali Chowhan, who had also served as Additional Advocate General Punjab, had gifted the gold-plated pen to his father. Naturally, the gift carried immense sentimental value for the former judge. When he found it was missing from its resting place in his pocket one day after finishing his classes, that concern quickly transmitted throughout the university. He informed the class representative via telephone, communicating in a sad tone.

The university's administration sprung into abrupt and aggressive action in search of the pen. Recordings from the closed-circuit television (CCTV ) cameras were feverishly reviewed, and the staff was interrogated about the whereabouts of the pocketable gift.

By the next morning, the pen was found inside Chowhan's car as he got ready to go to work. But the phone call to his student to update him deeply reflected how some people with a high stature but steeped in humbleness deal with others. 

This meant that Justice Chowhan enjoyed a very different kind of affiliation with Komboh, who now practices law in Islamabad. 

Komboh reciprocated this. 

Speaking to The Friday Times, Komboh said that despite enjoying such a high stature, having led the National Commission of Human Rights (NCHR) after returning to Pakistan from Gambia, Justice Chowhan never let others feel that there was someone extraordinary standing amidst them. 

He was always kind to others, especially law students, Komboh said.

Small habits can tell you a lot about a person's character, whether they are decent and civilized, Komboh said. Justice Chowhan possessed incomparable qualities with a very amiable personality. Despite his busy international schedule, Justice Chowhan cared for his students in Pakistan. 

Recounting another incident that demonstrated Justice Chowhan's brilliant nature and character, Komboh shared that once he contracted what appeared to be an unstoppable cough that started due to an allergic reaction. Hailing from the city of Gojra in Punjab, Komboh said he was not accustomed to the weather in Islamabad. 

At the moment, Justice Chowhan was in Europe to attend an international conference. Despite their distance of time and space, Komboh said Justice Chowhan kept regular contact with him, often asking about the young student's health and even securing medicine for him from abroad.

So much so, Komboh said Justice Chowhan offered to have his driver in Islamabad pick up the young man and drive him to and from the doctor's appointments. Komboh said he politely declined the offer, but the act touched him. 

Komboh added that it was not as if he was being treated specially by a teacher and that he was somehow his favourite; rather, this was the same way he would deal with other students and even non-students.

The young lawyer said that what surprised them even more was when they learnt that Justice Chowhan taught all of them without even so much as an honorarium or salary. 

Once, Justice Chowhan was delivering a lecture in class when a representative from the administration department interrupted, he recalled. The staffer came in hurriedly carrying a file with his contract agreement and asked the judge to complete the formalities by imprinting his initials in the due places. 

Justice Chowhan, Komboh said, briefly reviewed the documents put before him but refused to sign them, shocking the administration official and students that he would continue his services at no charge, not even accepting coverage of his expenses. 

Of unique talents

Senior lawyer and constitutional expert Hafiz Ahsaan Ahmad Khokhar told the Friday Times that Justice (r) Ali Nawaz Chowhan not only possessed a good professional legal track record while serving in Pakistan but also represented Pakistan as a judge simultaneously abroad. 

"He was a very good human being and always treated others in a very courteous manner. He had the legal capacity to make their independent legal opinion while conducting the court proceedings and writing of judgment," said Advocate Khokhar. 

The writer is an Islamabad based journalist working with The Friday Times. He tweets @SabihUlHussnain