Court issues bailable arrest warrants for Shafi and eight others in FIA case, as both parties say they are confident of victory
A magisterial court on Thursday issued bailable arrest warrants for singer Meesha Shafi and eight others in a case registered against her for allegedly defaming singer Ali Zafar through a social media campaign, with Shafi’s legal counsel moving the Lahore High Court (LHC) to seek its quashing.
In its order, the court said the reasons provided by the accused (Shafi) for not attending proceedings were “not justifiable” and ordered that she be produced against bailable warrants of Rs. 50,000 at the next date of hearing, fixed for Feb. 8. However, the court accepted an exemption plea filed by accused Fariha Ayub, saying her application was justifiable and granted her permission to not attend proceedings. Shafi’s counsel, Saqib Jilani, described the court ruling as “highly unfortunate,” adding that as a working professional, it was fairly routine for her to seek exemptions from court hearings.
Describing the issuance of the arrest warrants as a “mockery of law,” he told Newsweek there was no law in the world that targeted victims of harassment. “Our law and the Constitution do not permit violation of fundamental rights,” he emphasized.
The latest development in the case, which has been pending since November 2018, points to proceedings nearing conclusion. In April 2018, Sharif alleged on social media that Zafar had sexually harassed her on multiple, prompting many users to voice their support for her and demanding Zafar respond to her allegations. That November, Zafar filed a complaint with FIA cybercrime wing, alleging that many of the social media accounts that had been posting “threats and defamatory material” against him were created weeks before Shafi shared her allegations. This, he claims, was part of a strategy to malign him through a smear campaign.
In addition to Shafi, the FIA cybercrime wing has booked actor Iffat Omar, and social media users Leena Ghani, Maham Javaid, Ali Gul, Haseemuz Zaman Khan, Humna Raza and Syed Faizan Raza under Section 20(1) of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, read with Section 109 (offence through abetment) of the Pakistan Penal Code.
Since coming to light in 2018, the case has widely been described as the launch of the #MeToo movement in Pakistan, a global campaign that seeks to publicize allegations of sexual harassment and sexual abuse and ensure justice for victims. After Shafi shared her allegations—that Zafar had sexually harassed her on multiple occasions at social and work gatherings—many women across Pakistan came forward to support her, with several sharing similar experiences with Zafar and alleging he had behaved inappropriately with them.
Vociferously denying the allegations, Zafar vowed to contest them in court, and has thus far successfully defeated the sexual harassment claims brought against him by Shafi. Her lawyer Jilani says litigation is still underway on multiple forums. “Meesha’s actual case was with the provincial ombudsman in 2018 under the Protection Against Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2010, and the Punjab governor at a later stage,” he said. “The Lahore High Court upheld the decision [to quash the case] and rejected Meesha’s appeal on some technical grounds,” he explained, adding that the ruling had been challenged in the Supreme Court.
“[The apex court] then agreed to take up the case and hear Meesha’s allegations against Ali Zafar and granted a leave to Meesha from the harassment case,” he added.
The Supreme Court’s decision to hear the high-profile sexual harassment case on merit was hailed by activists and lawyers alike, who cited it as a victory for all women who raise their voices against harassment. But while that case is still pending, Zafar’s plea to the LHC against Shafi and eight others for allegedly running a “smear campaign” against him on social media has gained pace.
“Zafar filed the complaint with the Federal Investigation Agency Cybercrime Wing to further harass my client and as it was based on mala fide intentions, we had sought quashment of the case,” Jilani told Newsweek. “The court had reserved its judgment on the case in December 2021,” he said, adding that Shafi had filed a defamation case against Zafar in civil court in 2019, which the accused’s counsel had secured a stay against from the LHC. “Today, the court has also reserved judgment after hearing final arguments from both sides in that case,” he added.
Zafar’s lawyer, meanwhile, told Newsweek that his client remained confident of victory, as there was no physical evidence to back up Shafi’s allegations. “Even Meesha herself had admitted during cross examination that there’s no evidence and no witness to the harassment,” he said. “According to her, she was harassed by Zafar in 2014 for the first time and she brought this to the knowledge of her husband. Now the question is, what has she been doing with Zafar in the successive years in small functions, small parties and get-togethers?”
Earlier this month, during her cross-examination, Shafi said she had only decided to speak up after realizing that the situation could not be privately resolved. Referring to her initial social media posts, she said she had spoken up a day prior to having to work with Zafar, stressing that she had felt unsafe as the organizers had insisted she work with him.
Refusing to admit that Zafar had suffered any financial losses due to her allegations of sexual harassment, she noted that he had received accolades and awards after her social media posts, and had also reported record-breaking revenue for his film Teefa in Trouble. Similarly, she said, he had been recognized by the government, and Prime Minister Imran Khan had named him an ambassador for the Namal Knowledge City. She faces up to three years imprisonment for “criminal defamation” in case of a guilty verdict, which her counsel says is a highly unlikely possibility.
Zafar’s lawyer claims Shafi’s statements are “contradictory” and her continued engagement with his client after the alleged harassment appears unreasonable. “Her statements during cross-examination are quite contradictory and provide enough ground for me to convince the court that she defamed my client with some ulterior motive,” he claimed, adding that one of the instances of harassment she had cited occurred while 12 witnesses were present. All of them, he said, had confirmed to the court that nothing happened there.
He also sought to defend his client by saying the international #MeToo movement had primarily dealt with power imbalances. “Anyone in a position to dominate can take advantage,” he said. “However, in her case she has already shot to stardom and has worked in Hollywood, Bollywood and Lollywood, therefore, her complaints do not comply with her status,” he claimed, adding that he hoped the case would conclude within a month or two.
With both sides voicing confidence that they will emerge victorious, confusion persists over the eventual fallout of the pending cases. Shafi’s supporters stress that this case should be seen as a “test” for future cases, noting that the difficulty being faced by a “powerful” woman exposes how difficult it is to secure justice for the average citizen. Zafar’s supporters, meanwhile, maintain that in the absence of a clear power differential between them, there is little room to argue harassment.