News Analysis |
In what has been touted as one of the most controversial decisions in the judicial history of Pakistan, the Islamabad High Court on Wednesday, the 19th of September, suspended the sentence of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz. The deposed PM and his daughter have been released. The reaction to the decision has been two-fold. On one hand, supporters of the ousted Prime Minister are jubilant. Images of crowds celebrating the decision flooded television screens soon after the decision.
Many PML-N workers gathered around Adiala Jail to receive their leader. Pakistan Muslim League-N leaders celebrate the suspension of sentences. Former Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal said to the media that there were no criminal charges, to begin with against the PML-N supreme leader. ‘There was no accountability, only political victimization’, he said. The Sharifs were flown to Lahore in a private aircraft. They reached Lahore later in the night where a large number of supporters gathered outside to welcome them at the Taj terminal.
The suspension of the sentence does not help dampen this suspicion among the masses. The role of the National Accountability Court (NAB) has rightly been highlighted in this whole affair.
On the other hand, the decision has come to a shock to those who expected a real change for once in Pakistan. Confidence and trust in the country’s institutions were getting restored as accountability courts appeared to be very assertive, at least in the beginning, in the Avenfield reference against Nawaz Sharif. There was a real sense that the fear of getting caught by institutions would become a deterrent against corruption in public offices. With this decision of the High Court, however, the efficacy of the country’s criminal justice system has come under question.
There is a popular perception that the rich and the powerful can get away with virtually anything in Pakistan. Billionaires can afford million-dollar fees for successful and competent lawyers which gives them an edge, regardless of the nature of the charge against them. The suspension of the sentence does not help dampen this suspicion among the masses. The role of the National Accountability Court (NAB) has rightly been highlighted in this whole affair. Despite the rigorous investigation by the JIT, despite the scandal of Calibri font and forged documents, despite evidence for Ikama, the prosecution seems to be unable to definitely prove that the former Prime Minister was living beyond his means.
In 2016, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) leaked 11.5 million legal documents-dubbed the Panama Papers. These papers showed that the Sharif family had secured a $13.8 million loan using the Avenfield apartments as collateral. After a thorough investigation by the Joint Investigation Team formed after a Supreme Court order, the former PM was deposed on corruption charges. On the 6th of July, accountability court judge Mohammed Bashir had convicted Nawaz Sharif, his daughter Maryam Nawaz and son-in-law retired Captain Safdar and sentenced them to 10 years, 7 years and one year, respectively.
They were heavily fined as well, to the tune of 8 million pounds on Nawaz Sharif and 2 million pounds on Maryam Nawaz. The family was in London at the time, owing to ill-health of the now deceased wife of Nawaz Sharif, Begum Kulsoom Nawaz. On Friday, the 7th of September, the Islamabad High Court constituted a new bench to hear petitions challenging the conviction of the Sharifs in the Avenfield properties reference. In a somewhat shocking disclosure, it was revealed in August that the actual price of the Avenfield apartments was neither cited in evidence nor in the accountability court’s judgment on July 6th which resulted in the conviction of the Sharifs.
The prosecutor expressed an inability to present the relevant records and requested that the proceedings might be adjourned till next at least. But honorable Justice Aurangzeb was having none of it.
The Islamabad High Court bench to hear appeals against the verdict, comprising Justice Athar Minallah and Justice Miangul Hassan Aurangzeb, consequently probed NAB’s case against the former Prime Minister. Justice Minallah observed that NAB had not challenged the acquittal of the convicted under section 9 (a) (4) of the National Accountability Ordinance, which is “equal to accepting that he is not corrupt, dishonest or acquired assets through illegal means.” The relevant section deals with ‘corruption and corrupt practices.’ Section 9 (a) (4) deals with the acquisition of ‘property or valuable thing’ by corrupt, dishonest or illegal means. Section 9 (a) (5) deals with the possession of such property by any dependents or benamidar disproportionate to one’s income.
Justice Minallah observed that the assets in question were the same but the accused had been acquitted under section 9 (a) (4) and convicted under section 9 (a) (5). “How could NAB (now) claim that he committed corruption and made any property when it did not challenge his acquittal under Section 9(a)(4)?” he said. It is a bit curious to note that before petitions were taken up, the IHC told both parties that proceedings would not take place until they agreed the bench was impartial. Both sides reposed full confidence in the impartiality of the court after NAB got a grilling.
All this transpired in the mid of August. Then, about a month later, the sentence of the convicts was suspended, pending an appeal against the conviction. The court granted them bail and ordered them to pay Rs 0.5 million as surety bonds. The Sharifs were known to delay the accountability court’s proceedings, on one plea or another. A date for a hearing on the appeal has not been set yet. What this entails is that the final decision in the Avenfield properties reference will be delayed further.
This case has gone through so many twists and turns that by now, the common man on the street can’t help but be confused. Is Nawaz Sharif corrupt or not? Did he acquire the flats in London legally or illegally? Was he or was he not living beyond his disclosed means? Are the courts in this country truly impartial? At times, the prosecution seems to have the weight behind their arguments and the Sharifs seem defenseless. But when the appeals against the conviction are heard, NAB gets a grilling by the Islamabad High Court bench.
The case may drag on for a few more months. NAB will have to get its act together before the date for the hearing of appeals is announced.
Legal experts argue that the presumption of innocence in the court of law entails that the prosecution must provide positive evidence linking the accused with the crime which he or she has been charged with. It may be possible that some accused who are in fact guilty may not face due to judgment for lack of evidence but no innocent person should ever be wrongfully convicted, according to one expect. That being said, Sharif was disqualified as Prime Minister by the apex court in the country. Why, then, does NAB appear to be unable to answer Justice Minallah’s probing questions?
NAB appointed Muhammad Akram Qureshi as special prosecutor to oppose appeals against the conviction of the Sharifs on September the 11th. Mr. Qureshi tried to drag the case to at least one more week while the ICH bench constituted to hear appeals against the conviction seemed to be in a hurry to expedite disposal of pending petitions. The prosecutor expressed an inability to present the relevant records and requested that the proceedings might be adjourned till next at least. But honorable Justice Aurangzeb was having none of it. “You know this statement badly affects the reputation of your organization,” he had said at the time to the prosecutor.
According to conspiracy theories floating around on social media, the Supreme Court is with ‘the establishment’ and opposed to Nawaz Sharif. And the judges of the high court seem favorable to the Sharifs. But conspiracy theories are called that for a reason i.e. they lack evidence. The facts on the ground show that the prosecution was not adequately prepared so as to be able to answer the questions raised by the IHC bench. Why appoint a new special prosecutor for appeals against the conviction about a week before the suspension of sentences? Surely the man on point for such a high profile case shouldn’t have to ask the courts for adjournment on account of being unable to present relevant records within the stipulated time.
While PML-N supporters celebrate the suspension of sentences and the IHC bench constituted to hear appeals against the conviction did poke some holes in NAB’s prosecution, the fact of the matter is that the Sharifs are still convicts, though on bail. The case may drag on for a few more months. NAB will have to get its act together before the date for the hearing of appeals is announced.