The ongoing Panama Saga – which started in the Spring of 2016, when the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) released series of information leaked from the internal database of a Panama based law firm, Mossack Fonseca – has (forever?) changed the dynamics of democracy and statecraft in Pakistan.
In hindsight, the Panama case was not simply about how the Sharif family acquired its (undisclosed) wealth, channeled it through offshore vehicles, and parked it inexpensive properties/assets abroad.
Far more importantly, the Panama proceedings have: lifted the veil on Pakistan’s deprecating political culture; prompted the independence of our judiciary and, under judicial supervision, the mettle of our investigative State institutions; tested the resolve of military institutions to resist political adventurism; and finally and perhaps most importantly unleashed a new age of political consciousness, especially among Pakistan’s youth, through the expansive mediums of electronic and social media.
But before delving into these multi-faceted issues, it is pertinent to briefly overview the legal and constitutional issues involved in the Panama case, the honorable Supreme Court’s verdict in regards to the same.
Emperor had no clothes
By way of background, in April of 2016, just as ‘dharnas’ and ‘longer marches’, on alleged electoral fraud, had begun to subside, and Mian Nawaz Sharif (MNS) was beginning to tighten his grips on Pakistan’s political paradigm, Panama Leaks took the world political stage by a storm.
These documents revealed that several international leaders, or their close relatives, had parked assets in offshore companies, without requisite legal disclosures. And the names included the immediate family members of MNS – grown-up sons and daughter, referred to as “children” by friendly media to evoke sympathy.
Sharif family’s public statements, while approaching the Court, were measured but full of hope; they exuded the sort of confidence that comes from never having had the Courts of the land decide any major case against their interests.
Detailed hearings ensued – first before a bench headed by former Chief Justice Anwar Zaheer Jamali and, upon his retirement, by a bench headed by Justice Asif Saeed Khosa – in which the honourable Court examined the available evidence and provided ample opportunity to the Sharif family to present their defence.
After much public haggling and political protests (including failed talks of formulating a parliamentary commission), five separate petitions were filed before the honourable Supreme Court of Pakistan, which took cognizance of the matter.
The Petitioner’s case was simple: Sharif family members are on record for having admitted the ownership of Avenfied properties in London, which have never been disclosed in any tax or electoral filings, nor has any (lawful) money-trail been presented to justify the same.
Consequently, the honourable Supreme Court of Pakistan posed one straightforward, and simple, the question for the Respondents/Sharif family to answer: where is the money-trail to justify ownership of these assets? Sharif family’s public statements, while approaching the Court, were measured but full of hope; they exuded the sort of confidence that comes from never having had the Courts of the land decide any major case against their interests.
As a result, instead of presenting the requisite documentary evidence, Sharif family adopted a (twisted) trajectory of argument before the honourable Court: 1) that MNS is not personally mentioned in the Panama Leaks, only his “children” are; 2) after nationalization of their family businesses in the 1970s, Mian Muhammad Sharif (late father of MNS) set up the Gulf Steel Mill in UAE, with the help of loans procured through UAE Banks (no documentary evidence); 3) overtime the loan was paid off and Mian Muhammad Sharif cashed out his interest in the Gulf Steel Mill, investing 12 million AED into the real estate business of Al-Thani family of Qatar (again, no documentary proof or evidence); 4) subsequently, during the 2000s, Mian Muhammad Sharif named Mr. Hussain Nawaz (son of MNS) as the sole inheritor of the said business interests; 5) the Al-Thani family owned the concerned properties in London through offshore companies and allowed members of the Sharif family to occupy and use the same, subject to payment of ground rent and service charges; 6) later, in 2006, Mr. Hussain Nawaz and the Al-Thani family settled their accounts (without any written calculations, or records, of corresponding evidence), as a result of which shares of the offshore Companies – that own the properties in London – were transferred in the name of Mr. Hussain Nawaz; 7) resultantly, the London properties came under the ownership of the Sharif family without any cash transaction or money trail; 8) since Mr. Hussain Nawaz is a UK resident, there is no obligation on him to file his tax returns in Pakistan; and 9) since Mr. Hussain Nawaz is not a dependent of Nawaz Sharif, there was no obligation on the former Prime Minister to declare the said assets in his tax returns or electoral filings.
However, Maryam Nawaz – the heir apparent of MNS – had repeatedly stated in a nationally televised interview that she and her siblings “owned no properties in Pakistan or abroad.” This incredulous and (non-documented) fable of the Qatari prince, suffered from incurable factual and legal gaps.
To begin with, the public statements and interviews of Sharif family members, and their close associates contradicted this stance. Several confidants and allies of MNS claimed to have visited and stayed in the premier’s London apartments, as far back as the early 1990s.
Later, in the initial days of Panama Leaks, Hussain Nawaz had admitted that (by the grace of the Almighty) Sharif family owned the Avenfield Properties in London, which were held in the name none other than Maryam Nawaz. Also, before the Supreme Court case had even started, MNS addressed the nation as well as the Parliament, narrating a half-cooked story about his ancestral family wealth and assets.
This incredulous and (non-documented) fable of the Qatari prince, suffered from incurable factual and legal gaps.
Surprisingly, none of the public statements of Sharif family members ever mentioned a Qatari prince, or some non-cash settlement dating back to late Mr. Sharif. And thus, no one really believed this story when MNS presented it (on oath) before the honorable Supreme Court.
The honourable Court also discarded this (concocted?) defence; all five members of the bench concluded that story presented by Sharif family seemed, prima facie, implausible. Specifically, two honourable members (Justice Asif Khosa and Justice Gulzar Ahmed) disqualified MNS for having lied on oath, and therefore no longer being “sadiq and ameen” (honest and sagacious), per clause 62(1)(f) of the Constitution.
However, the remaining three judges (Justice Azmat Saeed Sheikh, Justice Ijaz Afzal, and Justice Ijaz-ul-Ahsan) decided to form a JIT, in order to probe the matter further. In this regard, Justice Khosa’s judgment pointed out a plethora of contradictions and “broken” links in the material produced by Sharif family, concluding that the MNS had “economized with the truth”.
Justice Khosa observed that “no details of any bank account, any banking transaction or any money trail has been brought on the record” by MNS or his family. In fact, Justice Khosa pointed out that the entire “story” about Qatari investments was “nothing but an afterthought” with “absolutely nothing” on the record to substantiate the same.
Thus, Justice Khosa made the inescapable conclusion that “even a layman [in Pakistan Chowk, Dera Ghazi Khan] can appreciate… that what has been told to the nation, the National Assembly or even this Court about how the relevant properties in London had been acquired was not the truth.”
Read more: Is Nawaz Sharif really an Ideology?
This “unbelievable” story of “oscillating and vacillating explanations”, Justice Khosa concluded, had no “credibility”, and made one “wonder where truth and honesty stand in the list of priorities of [the PM]”, thus meriting disqualification under Article 62 and 63 of the Constitution. Justice Ijaz-ul-Ahsan (writing for the majority) agreed with almost all of the factual and legal conclusions arrived at by Justice Khosa.
Specifically, Justice Ahsan pointed out “patently contradictory statements” of the MNS and his family members, and observed that Qatari letters “have not been proved in accordance with law, are ex facie based upon hearsay and not substantiated by any credible material, let alone document(s)/evidence.” He also observed that “it is hard to believe” that 12 million Dirhams exchanged hands “in cash”.
In fact, Justice Ahsan pointed out that the (sham) payment spreadsheet, presented by Sharif family lawyers, was an “amateurish exercise in reverse accounting”, thus “bogus”, and having “no legal or evidentiary value and we have no hesitation in out rightly rejecting it.
”And that “no effort has been made to provide even the basic answers” to questions raised against Sharif family, and “no effort was made, despite questions asked, to explain why two young men, who were studying in London, needed four large independent flats to live in.”
In the circumstances, the majority judgment constituted a special Joint Investigation Team (JIT) to probe the matter further, and make its recommendations to the honourable Court, in order to facilitate passing of the final verdict.
Justice Ahsan pointed out that the (sham) payment spreadsheet, presented by Sharif family lawyers, was an “amateurish exercise in reverse accounting”, thus “bogus”, and having “no legal or evidentiary value and we have no hesitation in out rightly rejecting it.
This judgment, which read more as a charge sheet, stunned Sharif family and members of the ruling party. While the PML(N) spin-machine tried to present it as a ‘victory’ (since MNS had not yet been disqualified by the majority), however, panic had begun to settle within their ranks. And with it, their narrative started to harden – against the judiciary as well as members of the newly constituted JIT.
As Sharif family and their close associates were summoned before the JIT, members of PML(N) resorted to issuing threats against the judiciary and the JIT. From Saad Rafique’s ‘lohey ke chaney’ to the barbaric rant of Nihal Hashmi, PML(N) adopted a deliberate strategy of threatening individuals, maligning the judiciary, and spinning unsubstantiated conspiracy theories.
Regardless, the law took its natural course, and the JIT presented its report before the honourable Supreme Court of Pakistan. It contained enough prima facie evidence to disqualify MNS, and warrant institution of money laundering cases against him and his family members.
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To mention just a few facts: the JIT report concluded that admittedly the properties in London were owned by Sharif family, without any available money trail; Nawaz Sharif had served as Chairman of FZE Capital, had been entitled to a salary, and continued to hold an ‘Iqama’, all hidden from the public eye; Rs. 45 million of non-declaration on Nawaz Sharif’s 2013 Wealth Statement remained unexplained; Qatari letter remained unsubstantiated; trust deed, submitted before the honourable Supreme Court, had turned out to be fake; Financial Investigation Agency and the Advocate General of BVI had confirmed that Maryam Nawaz was, in fact, the beneficial owner of Neilson and Nescoll (which held the Avenfield properties); Gulf Steel Mill remained an enigma; ‘living beyond means’ case had not been rebutted by Sharif family; the statements of Tariq Shafi, Hussain Nawaz, Hassan Nawaz and Shehbaz Sharif, all contain incorrigible contradictions; and Zafar Hijazi (Chairman, SECP) had been caught tampering documents to benefit Sharif family.
In light of this report, the honorable Supreme Court declared “that having failed to disclose his un-withdrawn receivables constituting assets from Capital FZE Jebel Ali, UAE in his nomination papers filed for the General Elections held in 2013” as required by the Representation of the People Act, 1976 (ROPA), “and having furnished a false declaration under solemn affirmation” Mr. Muhammad Nawaz Sharif is “not honest in terms of Section 99(f) of ROPA and Article 62(1)(f) of the Constitution”, and thus “he is disqualified to be a Member of the Majlis-e-Shoora (Parliament).”
As for cases concerning money laundering and fraud, the honourable Court referred the matter (along with evidence collected by the JIT) to the National Accountability Bureau, so that appropriate references may be filed before a court of competent jurisdiction.
In essence, the honourable Court concluded that, based on admitted and undisputed facts, MNS was guilty of ‘lying on oath’, and thus disqualified from being a member of the National Assembly.
The JIT report and the consequent judgment of the honourable Court shattered a long-standing narrative of Pakistani politics: that our courts do not, and will not, pass adverse orders against Takht-e-Lahore. In light of this narrative, developed over three decades, the people of Pakistan had all made peace with cases such as.
We made peace with the fact that Nawaz Sharif will sustain his tainted rule over us till he dies. And then his children will carry forward this torch. Till the day when mountains are scattered like carded wool.
From Saad Rafique’s ‘lohey ke chaney’ to the barbaric rant of Nihal Hashmi, PML(N) adopted a deliberate strategy of threatening individuals, maligning the judiciary, and spinning unsubstantiated conspiracy theories.
Suddenly, however, MNS had been disqualified and his family was on the run. And the entrenched paradigm of ‘political reality’, which we had all believed for so long, no longer held true. The ‘Ship of our State’, had entered unchartered waters. MNS decided to take the conflict head-on, by launching his GT-Road Rally. For some inexplicable reason, he believed that people would come out in the throngs to greet this fallen hero.
He lashed out at the SC, claiming that “five people” had robbed the nation of their democratic mandate; he announced the start of a democratic revolution that would sweep across the ‘khaki’ fields and ‘robed’ corridors of power. And then, that revolution locked itself in Jati Umrah, never to be seen on the streets again.
In the days that followed, the Sharif family refused to appear before NAB authority. In fact, it was not till after the Reference was filed, and NAB court threatened to start arrest proceedings against Sharif family members, that Nawaz Sharif, his daughter and his son-in-law appeared in Court; his two sons, the main beneficiaries of (late) grandfather’s fortunes, did not afford any such courtesy to Pakistani courts, and have since been declared “proclaimed offenders”.
Consequently, Pakistani’s ruling political party is now led by an individual who has been disqualified by the honourable Supreme Court, whose family has been indicted in corruption cases, and whose sons have been declared absconders in cases relating to money laundering and financial corruption.
As the reality of Panama verdict started to manifest itself in Pakistan’s politics, Sharif family and their loyalists upped the ante in regards to anti-judiciary and anti-Army rhetoric. Maryam Nawaz accused “invisible forces” (read: intelligentsia) of playing a hand in NA-120 by-elections. Nawaz Sharif converted himself into a democratic ideologue, forgetting that his political birth had taken place in the cradle of Pakistan’s most controversial military ruler.
PML(N)’s spin machine – which included several media personalities – started brewing the mantra of khaki shadows over the Panama judgment. They objected to the presence of intelligence personnel in the JIT, and to the time-bound trial ordered by the honourable Court.
Several respected members of the electronic media were included in Nawaz Sharif’s think-tank of political strategy. National Exchequer, at the expense of public money, was doled out to select media outlets – in the form of governmental advertisement revenue – so as to influence public narrative.
In fact, per a pending constitution petition before the Chief Justice of Lahore High Court, it was revealed that billions of Rupees of public money had been allocated to private media channels without any due process or transparent procedure.
In this regard, members of the Federal Government, as well as the Provincial Government of Punjab, called in their favors to ensure that select talk-shows and analysts fan the flames of an alleged conspiracy.
However, these efforts were all in vain. Governmental influence alone, in the age of social media, cannot shape the public narrative. As a new generation of young and growing middle-class started to ask tough questions, on every street-corner and tea-stall in Pakistan, it quickly became apparent: the Emperor was not wearing any clothes.
In the circumstances, the Sharif family decided to file a ‘Review Petition’ before the honourable Supreme Court, raising hyper-legal objections to the judgment rendered by the 5-member Panama bench. They had hoped (against all reason) that their caustic narrative against the judiciary and intelligentsia would create enough public pressure on the honourable Court to reverse its verdict on Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification.
We made peace with the fact that Nawaz Sharif will sustain his tainted rule over us till he dies. And then his children will carry forward this torch. Till the day when mountains are scattered like carded wool.
They had perhaps miscalculated that the Court is only empowered to decide cases in accordance with the Constitution and the law; that it does not (and must not) suffer from the fleeting pressures of political expediency. And, in any case, the ‘revolution’ that disappeared behind the barricaded doors of Jati Umrah, did not create enough pressure for our constitutional institutions to fear any (public) consequences.
The honourable Court dismissed the Review Petition, further damaging the narrative and integrity of Nawaz Sharif’s politics. Away from answering the legal objections, the honourable Court poignantly pointed out that a very high level “of integrity is expected of the holder of the highest elected office of the country”.
However, in stark contrast, MNS “has not been fair and forthright in answering any of the queries made during the course of hearing”, he “never came forth with the whole truth”, and “tried to fool the people inside and outside the Parliament”.
This damning conclusion, in which Nawaz Sharif was called a ‘liar’ for the fourth time – 1) in the original Panama judgment; 2) by the JIT; 3) in the final Panama judgment, and 4) in the Review judgment – read as an epitaph on Nawaz Sharif’s political career.
In response, PML(N) issued a press statement, calling this judgment mala fide and biased; but, by this time, no one paid much attention to what Nawaz Sharif and his coterie had to say.
In this new age of independent journalism, private television channels, and expanding social media, there is no real way of hiding political skeleton in the closet.
The Panama saga, which in part is ongoing in the NAB courts, has been a watershed moment in Pakistan’s political and judicial history. And the Sharif family, along with all other members of the ruling junta, would do well to recognize this fact. Something tectonic is shifting underneath the political sands of Pakistan.
One: in this new age of independent journalism, private television channels, and expanding social media, there is no real way of hiding political skeleton in the closet. This is not the Pakistan of the 1990s… when the entire public narrative was shaped by State-sponsored media outlets. In this modern age, actions have consequences. And political influence and money cannot erase the sins of the past.
Two: as democracy matures in Pakistan, so will the democratic institutions. Gone are the days of Malik Qayyum-esque courts, when political power could bend the arc of jurisprudence. Pakistan and its people have bled for the cause of an independent judiciary; an institution that would apply and enforce the mandate of our Constitution, without the passion of prejudice. This judiciary, unlike its predecessors, does not fear to lift the veil on Takht-e-Lahore, or Bilawal House, for that matter.
Three: the global Internet and social media revolution has resulted in an explosion of knowledge in the expanding middle-class of Pakistan. Rehearsed press statements no longer fool the masses. Thanks to our nation-wide addiction to talk-shows and breaking news, people on the street have a nuanced understanding of political issues.
The ‘mango people’ now regularly comment on and discuss the “constitutionality” of issues. They remember past political commitments and hold public officials responsible for their actions.
In this flux, no politician or public officeholder should harbor any illusions about being able to “fool all of the people, all of the time” (a phrase used for Nawaz Sharif by the honorable Supreme Court).
Four: there is a new generation, the youth, coming of age in Pakistan. This new generation – the largest fraction of our population – does not suffer from the ghosts of the past. It does not believe in the invincibility of entrenched political powers. It does not ascribe to the politics of expediency.
It has not been jaded by a checkered history of tainted democracy. It believes in hope. Injustice. Inequality. And even in the midst of this sinister night, this generation whispers the arrival of impending dawn. Of the fulfilment of that eternal promise, which will level all highlands, and raise the lows.
Hum dekhen gey
Laazim hai ke hum bhi dekhen gey
It believes in a promise that predates time itself. Much before we summoned the audacity to distributed ourselves into hakims and mehkooms; much before humanity ever bowed its head to the self-proclaimed masters of our time. A promise that measures humanity by the content of its character, as opposed to reach of its resources.
Jab zulm-o-sitam ke koh-e-garaa’n
Roee ki terha urr jaye’n gey
A generation that believes in the promise that, one day, Pakistan will (at least) be the land of the kind, even if it is not that of the pure. A country where the progeny of a politician, will not automatically inherit his seat in the parliament.
Where the wealthy will not always command the destiny of the destitute. Where masjid will not be the only house of Allah. Mullah will not be the only path of salvation. And the likes of Maryam Nawaz will wait their turn, behind Allah Ditta, at the gates of public power.
Hum mehkoomon ke paao’n taley
Yeh dharti dhar-dhar dharkey gi
A promise that one day, under the shade of our crescent and star, the rich will bow to the virtuous. The mighty will kneel before the modest. The sage will swear allegiance to the dreamer. And the oppressed and subjugated masses will once again re-inherit our lush-green fields, flowing rivers, pristine deserts, and majestic mountains.
Aur ahl-e-hakam ke sir ooper
Jab bijli kar-kar karkey gi
And in that place – this promised land – there will no place for stacks of cash buried in the backyard, or off-shore fiefdoms, acquired through unjustified means, for the benefit of a select few.
Hum dekhen gey!
The original article was published in the December issue of the Global Village Space Magazine. The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has an LL.M. in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or Twitter: @Ch_SaadRasool.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.