Islamabad High Court (IHC) Chief Justice Athar Minallah’s decision to halt proceedings while hearing former federal minister Fawad Chaudhary’s petition till Imran Khan clarifies whether or not he trusts the judiciary sets a very important precedent and should, all else remaining the same, prompt a strategic rethink within PTI. Fawad petitioned the court to restrain the police force from arresting PTI leaders nominated in numerous cases connected with the Masjid e Nabwi incident. But CJ Minallah pointed out that PTI, especially Imran himself, harbours “doubts regarding the independence and impartiality of this court” and advised Fawad’s counsels to “inform the court on (the) next date, after seeking instructions, whether the petitioners and leadership of PTI repose confidence in the court to proceed with the petitions in hand”. CJ Minallah also put the same question to former interior minister and close PTI ally Sheikh Rashid while hearing the latter’s petition against appointment of Hanif Abbasi as special assistant to prime minister. “If Imran Khan does not trust the IHC, I apologise as CJ and will send the case to another court,” he lamented and wondered if Rashid’s, or even PTI’s, lawyers had told them that it was perfectly legitimate for courts to open at any time and one such intervention in 2014 also led to the release of wrongly detained PTI workers in the dead of the night. “Political statements are made at rallies questioning why courts opened at night. It is said that the courts open at the behest of someone,” he said very clearly before pointing out that “your lawyers must have told you that there are rules and the chief justice can take up a case anytime”. Something like this was bound to happen because PTI has clearly opened a very active front against the judiciary ever since the Supreme Court dismissed its attempts to derail the no-confidence motion on 3 April 2022 as “against the constitution”. Imran has repeatedly undermined its credibility by implying that “powerful people” were able to force open the court at midnight and steal the mandate of the people, and so on. And with PTI’s large and very active social media team amplifying these charges on the internet, the courts were coming under increasing pressure with every passing day. Fawad’s counsel is supposed to bring Imran’s reply as the hearing resumes today, and most people familiar with the matter and close to the party expect it to get the message and soften its rhetoric. Yet there are also those who feel Imran’s escalation is part of a carefully calibrated strategy that is meant to pit sections of society against central state institutions in a bid to increase confusion and force either an early election or an intervention by the army. However, questioning the credibility of the courts as part of a strategy also involves dismissing some of its verdicts which, as in this case, risks overstepping some sensitive legal red lines. And that always has consequences that can’t just be laughed away at protest rallies. So far Imran has upset both the military and the judiciary by his insinuations. And now both have fired warning shots. The ball is right back in his court.