As the fate of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif hangs in balance before the Supreme Court bench in the Panama case, serious apprehensions are being expressed about the fragile democratic transition in the country. Although all parties are for now apparently in agreement that parliament should complete its tenure, nobody is sure about how the grand political game will play out to the conflicting imperatives of various power-players, both on and behind the scene.
It’s the mischievous money trail that has so far eluded even the most vicious inquisitors (the Joint Investigation Team). Nine volumes of the JIT report with big ‘EVIDENCE’ marked on cartons not only failed to find any substantial trace of the money trail, but also tried to add to the burden of investigation by opening up some closed cases. The investigation heavily relied on rebutting the lacunae in an otherwise half-baked story of witnesses who remained steadfast in not spilling the beans.
And it was not just the interested investigators who failed to bring out undeniable evidence – except for questionable documents and infinite accusations – the defendants too shied from revealing the sources used in the acquisition of London flats. The JIT, however, seemed to have avoided the option of knocking at the door of the Qatari prince who was ready to allow an audience to the poor JIT at his majestic palace to provide a glimpse of the dividend/largesse or share that bought the luxury of the Avenfield apartments for the younger Sharifs.
The most ludicrous part of the nine volumes is the “assets beyond means” of Mian Mohammed Nawaz Sharif, “who does not hold any formal position or role in running the businesses and is not a director on any board”, according to the Sharif family. The JIT is of the view that “he is enjoying pecuniary benefits, other than dividends from these businesses in the shape of unexplained inflows in his personal bank accounts, on a fairly regular basis from the business profits of his sons and businesses run by him purportedly as gift”. So what’s wrong if Nawaz Sharif is also reaping the benefits from the legalised conduit of the gift-scheme that allows billions of remittances to millions of beneficiaries, and which is also being misused by many to whiten their black-money and escape both taxes and accountability, allegedly also including Imran Khan and his crusader PTI.
In the end, the skeleton the JIT could find in the cupboard of Nawaz Sharif was the chairmanship of FZE Capital in the UAE, owned by his son Hassan and used essentially as a work-permit (sic!). It makes quite a mockery of the investigation that the prime minister of this country is essentially being accused of getting a pathetic salary of 10,000 dirhams – and that too on paper, apparently for visa purposes. One must ask where those billions of dollars are that had allegedly been stashed away out of the national exchequer via the misuse of high public office by the prime minister.
The rest of the case is all about the prime minister’s father and sons from whose business he, at least, is legally distanced. The JIT has rightly observed that “apparently the objective of such stance is to distance himself from a formal role in running of the businesses in [the] strictest regulatory and legal sense”. That is a good omen if this course was adopted to avoid conflict of interest.
However, the secret behind the ‘original sin’ of the money trail of the House of Sharif, after the nationalisation of their Ittefaq Foundry, is shrouded behind the benamidar offshore businesses the grand patriarch Mian Mohammed Sharif set up in the regulation-free Gulf. This was done to evade the Foreign Assets’ (Declaration) Regulation of 1972 which banned acquiring any property out of the country in contravention of any law in Pakistan (punishable with life imprisonment and confiscation of a part or whole of property in Pakistan).
The later part of the money trail is linked to the long exile-years of the Sharifs when the elder Sharif again put together his businesses in KSA and elsewhere. There is no clue about the suspected transfer of money from Pakistan through illegitimate sources. Indeed, as the honourable judges are rightly repeatedly saying: after having owned the Avenfield apartments the sons of the PM are under a legal obligation to explain the money trail. And the enigmatic trail is lost between the late Mian Sharif and his late Qatari partner. Intriguingly, the JIT on quite frivolous pretexts avoided following up with Prince Hamad bin Jafer al-Thani who holds the key to the money trail – according to both him and the Sharifs’ story. The prime minister did promise to reveal the facts, but avoided ostensibly on the advice of his attorneys. And that is the end of both the stories.
The Honourable Lordships are constrained by their own judgment in the case and by the imperatives of the due process of justice that are binding on them – to not decide the case without solid evidence, which the JIT prima facie failed to produce against the prime minister. The honourable bench of the Supreme Court, being the appellate court, is rightly inclined not to become a trial court. Yet it is faced with the dilemma of passing a moral stricture on the moralist touchstones of trustfulness and honesty (sadiq and ameen) and sending a reference to the Accountability Court. There is, however, a precedent in a similar case – regarding the unlawful appointments of police personnel in Sindh – in which the Supreme Court bench headed by Justice Hani had, after receiving the report from an investigation committee it had appointed, decided to send the reference to the National Accountability Board.
There are other precedents too in which the apex court ordered the disqualification of sitting members of the legislature under Articles 62-63, without a trial by the relevant forums, which former attorney general Irfan Qadir rightly wants to be revisited. The question is: how far may the honourable judges go in stretching or remaining constrained by Article 184 (3)? History still remembers the historic ‘judicial murder’ of a most popular prime minister. Hopefully, history won’t be further burdened with historic judgments. The best course is to allow due process of law and justice. That would make a fair trial by the relevant forum abundantly over-binding.
The problem will arise when the contending parties and the adjudicators jump the gun on their respective obligations under the law. The court is simply asking the source and exact ownership of the Avenfield apartments. If the owners don’t reveal it, then let the trial court proceed against them. The fate of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif should not derail the democratic transition which, if derailed, would serve authoritarian and extra-constitutional forces.
The real question is: who rules Pakistan? So far, not the elected representatives. Regardless of the PM’s fate, the democratic transition must remain on its constitutional course to – someday – make the people of this country the real sovereign of this country.
The writer is a senior journalist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org