Asif Haroon Raja
Panama case which emerged in April 2016 was fully exploited by Imran Khan (IK) led PTI. Once IK refused to accept the offer of PM Nawaz Sharif (NS) to hold a commission of retired judges to probe the case, the Parliamentary Committee couldn’t make any headway since PML-N, PTI and PPP failed to frame consensus Terms of References (TORs). IK, Sheikh Rashid and Sirajul Haq submitted their petitions in the apex court to disqualify NS, since in their view he was no more Sadiq (honest) and Ameen (truthful).
The judicial process of Panama case was taken up by the Supreme Court Bench (SCB) under former chief justice Anwar Zaheer Jamali and heard from October 19, 2016 till December 9, 2016. After Jamali’s retirement, the case was then taken up by a 5-member SCB under Justice Asif Saeed Khosa and it held 26 hearings from January 4 to February 20, 2017, after which it reserved its judgement for next 58 days. Counsels of respondents were Makhdoom Ali, Khawaja Haris and Raja Salman respectively while that of petitioners were Hamid Khan followed by Naeem Bokhari.
The case of Mossack Fonseca offshore company in Panama of which the two sons of NS were account holders took a turn towards Mayfair flats in London to Aqama controversies. The petitioners alleged that while Maryam Nawaz was a beneficiary and not a trustee of the London flats and an account holder of offshore company, the actual owner was NS and that the amount for their purchase was money laundered from Pakistan (proceeds of Chaudhry Sugar Mills and Hudaibya Paper Mills).
The respondents tried to prove that the money trail originated from Gulf Steel Mills purchased by NS father Mian M. Sharif in 1972 and brought in Crown Prince of Qatar Hamad bin Jasim as the provider of amount for the purchase of flats who had shared business with Muhammad Sharif, father of NS. Qatari Prince refused to appear before the SCB or the JIT, asserting he was not bounded by Pakistani law. He asked the JIT to record his statement in Doha, which was not recorded.
Since both sides failed to prove the money trail and ownership of the four flats, the 5-member SCB announced its 541 pages verdict on April 20, 2017, which was a split decision. While two judges opined that NS stood disqualified on account of his conflicting statements, the other three judges pended their decisions saying that more information was required. Logically the two judges should have also pended their decision till the submission of JIT report, or should not have sat in judgement on July 28 since earlier on they had ruled without the inputs of JIT.
The 5-member SCB formed an ‘Implementation Bench’ comprising three judges under Justice Ejaz Afzal Khan that had not agreed with the verdict of two judges. In addition, it formed a JIT comprising six members under an FIA officer Wajid Zia on April 25, 2017 which was to work under the direct supervision of the new SCB. It was mandated to find out answers to 13 questions within 60 days that would help the Implementation Bench in arriving at final judgement.
During the extensive probe by the JIT, in which the PM, his three children, his son-in-law Capt Safdar, Shahbaz Sharif, Ishaq Dar, Tariq Shafi and Rahman Malik were interrogated, media trial of NS and his family intensified. PML-N leaders launched counter offensive by pointing prejudices and defects of the JIT members and a stage came when the respondents blamed the JIT for being prejudiced and predisposed.
The petitioners who initially saw the JIT disapprovingly, started eulogizing it. As a quid pro quo, PML-N leaders initiated cases of similar nature against IK and PTI leader Jahangir Tareen and adopted an aggressive posture.
When the JIT submitted its 14000 paged 10-volume report on July 10, the PML-N leaders asked the SCB to reject the report which in their view was mala fide in intent and biased. In their view, JIT had gone beyond the given mandate by opening up closed cases in its bid to trace the money trail and had made them part of the report.
The 3-member SCB reopened the proceedings on July 17 on daily basis and after hearing the arguments of both sides in the light of new aspects brought out by the JIT, it closed the case on July 20 to write down the final verdict.
During the intervening period, both sides kept the political temperature on the boil. While the delay was to the liking of the respondents, PTI in particular became impatient and reminded the SCB to hurry it up since delay was not good for the country. The petitioners maintained that the JIT had gathered sufficient incriminating material to disqualify NS and were confident that his goose is cooked.
While the PTI and Sheikh Rashid were sure that the PM will be disqualified and sent to jail, PML-N was confident that he will come out clean. As a worst case scenario, they hoped that the case will be handed over to a larger Bench or sent to Accountability Court which will help in buying time till next elections. Their optimism rested on laudable achievements made by PML-N regime in its 4-year tenure and the overall dangerous geo-political environment faced by Pakistan which demanded political stability and unity to confront external challenges. They felt that political instability was least desirable at a time when Pakistan was at an economic take-off stage.
Amidst the nerve racking mounting tension, two important developments took place on July 27. Firstly, the Interior Minister Ch Nisar Ali, nursing grievances against the senior party leadership particularly because of his tiff with Defence Minister Khawaja Asif. He lost his cool when he was ignored by the PM in the meetings of the core team and when he learnt that Khawaja Asif was tipped as an interim PM in case of disqualification of NS.
In his press conference, Nisar announced that soon after the verdict of the apex court, he will resign from his post and his MNA seat and will say goodbye to politics but will not ditch his mother party with whom he has remained associated since 1985. His press conference was ill-timed and in bad taste since as one of the pioneers of the PML-N, and claiming to be standing with NS through thick and thin, he could have avoided adding to the woes of beleaguered PM at a time when unity within the party was crucial.
The other breaking news a little after Nisar’s media briefing was about the 5-member SCB and not 3-member SCB will announce the Panama case final verdict at 1130 hours on July 28. It gave plentiful grist to the ever hungry media to keep churning out assessments and conjectures throughout the evening and till late night.
PML-N and PTI leaders and workers as well as fraternity members and others thronged the Supreme Court premises on the D-Day and waited for the verdict with bated breath. To the joy of petitioners and sorrows of defendants, all five members of the SCB gave a unanimous verdict disqualifying the PM.
Invoking Article 183/4, the court declared NS disqualified to hold PM office or Member of Parliament for life under Article 62-63 of the Constitution and sent several references to the NAB to start criminal proceedings within 45 days and to complete it in six months’ time. Ishaq Dar whose wealth has swollen from Rs. 9 million to Rs. 837 million in 7 years from 2010 to 2017, and Safdar were also disqualified. References were sent against them as well as against Maryam, Hussain Nawaz and Hassan Nawaz. The main reason given for this extreme step is that NS had been dishonest to the Parliament and courts in not disclosing his employment in Dubai based FZE Company in 2013 nomination papers. The Election Commission has also issued disqualification notification of NS and he has vacated the PM House.
The ones that felt jubilant on account of varying reasons were:-
- PTI which rightly feels that it was owing to consistent efforts of IK that the legal battle has been won. Their chief foe NS has been ousted from politics for life. They are confident that sooner than later the PML-N will crack up and large numbers of its leaders will switch to PTI and thus brighten up chances of sweeping the polls in next elections. IK has announced to celebrate the victory on next Sunday at 5 pm in parade ground Islamabad. He hopes that many new birds will join his show. If the PML-N splinters, IK may demand early elections.
- The Jamaat-e-Islami whose hands are relatively cleaner feels that the historic decision has opened the doors for across the board accountability of all corrupt and criminal elements in all political parties under Articles 62-63.
- The PPP is happy that ouster of PM Gilani by the apex court in 2012 in which NS was one of the petitioners seeking his disqualification has been avenged. Although Bilawal has hinted at across the board accountability, inwardly each PPP member is hoping that axe of Supreme Court will next fall upon IK, Jahangir Tareen and Aleem Khan, all charged with similar cases. That will leave the political arena open for the PPP to re-emerge as the leading national party. Sindh based PPP legislators have protected themselves from accountability by abolishing NAB laws and introducing own accountability bill.
- The Choudhry Brothers led PML-Q, formed from within PML-N in 2002 is mighty pleased seeing its chief foe downed and is hopeful that defectors from PML-N will join it.
- The MQM is also thrilled since it holds NS wholly responsible for disintegrating its militant wing in Sindh, in discrediting and isolating Altaf, and in fracturing the party into three factions.
- Spirits of Gen Musharraf in exile have revived and he is looking forward to return home and possibly be among the contestants in next elections.
- The Baloch separatists and their foreign based leaders are jubilant that NS has been punished for going out of the way to break the back of separatist movement in Baluchistan.
- Hopes of the TTP and 60 other affiliated militant groups aspiring to make FATA and KP an Islamic Emirate must have revived after seeing their tormentor pushed into the dustbin of history.
- Foreign powers that had made comprehensive plans to derail and fragment Pakistan through covert war and hybrid war must be delighted to see the disgraceful ouster of NS who had dared to make Pakistan nuclear, had initiated CPEC, was tilting towards Russia, had refused to hand over Kulbushan and to stop espousing the cause of Kashmiris. For them, the coming political anarchy leading to deadlock and paralysis will make their task of triggering civil war easier.
PML-N, JUI-F, NP and fans of NS were dejected and heart-broken. In their view, the defendants were awarded extreme punishment. They still smell conspiracy behind this exceptionally harsh decision taken in indecent haste which may roll back whatever progress made by Pakistan.
The government has grudgingly accepted the decision of the court keeping into consideration the overall perilous geo-political situation but has not agreed with the decision. The accused have the right to appeal to the Supreme Court to reconsider the SCB decision.
While NS and Maryam (possible successor) have apparently become history in the politics of Pakistani politics, the PML-N as a national party is still vibrant and till now the strongest party with all the potential to win the next elections.
PML-N voters have not reconciled with the court’s decision since they are in love with NS and are in ugly mood. They are likely to vote for the party with greater fervor in next elections.
NS has suggested the name of Shahbaz Sharif as next PM but final decision will be announced in a day or two. Shahbaz will first have to go through the ritual of winning a national assembly seat in a bye-election in next 45 days. For the interim PM for 45 days or so, another senior leader will be nominated.
Well-wishers of the ruling party are of the view that it will be better for the party to keep the vital fort of Punjab in the strong hands of Shahbaz and appoint someone else as next PM. Had Maryam not been indicted, she was probably the first choice of NS as his replacement. But for Nisar’s grouses, Khawaja Asif was the next choice of NS. The party has however resolved to keep the unity of the party intact at all cost.
As feared, a political vacuum has occurred since the country is without an executive head and a cabinet. Until and unless this vacuum is quickly filled up to allow the wheels of the government machinery to roll forward, anything can happen. An outsider has just to light a match stick to explode the powder keg.
If today’s judgement sets into motion the process of accountability of all, vertically and horizontally, it will be remembered in history as a historic decision. If the buck stops at NS and his family, it will be termed as selective and “NS Specific” under a preplanned plot. It will jeopardize the credibility of the apex court, which otherwise has a dubious past of legalizing Ghulam Muhammad’s act in 1954, validating all military takeovers and subversion of the constitution.
Only the deaf and dumb can ignore the spectacular achievements made by Pakistan in 4 years. Those who are convinced that once IK seizes power, terrorists of all hues acting as proxies of foreign agencies will lay down their arms and bid farewell to terrorism, MQM will become law abiding, Baloch separatists will stop espousing the dream of making Baluchistan independent, 5th columnists and snakes in the grass will become patriotic, relationship among all political parties will become harmonious, religious extremism will get diluted, sectarian and ethnic tensions would evaporate, investors will rush to Pakistan for investment, circular debt and foreign debts would be paid back in a jiffy, big crocodiles will be netted and cancer of corruption will go away without passage of effective accountability bill, $200 billion stashed in Swiss banks will flow back into national kitty, deep rooted flaws in education system will be cured without meaningful educational reforms, the elections will be fair and free without carrying out electoral reforms, cheap and equitable justice will be delivered without judicial reforms, bureaucracy will change its bossy attitude and corrupt practices without bureaucratic reforms, police will start delivering without radical reforms, moral turpitude and human values of the society will improve without moral reformation, it’s like living in a fool’s paradise.
If they think that India and Afghanistan will become friendly, the US will discard its agenda of denuclearizing Pakistan, Iran will change its attitude, I reckon it will be akin to chasing rainbows. All this is humanly possible if IK has the Aladdin lamp and not otherwise. What if he also gets disqualified by the apex court, or PTI loses the electoral race again? Let us pray for the safety and wellbeing of Pakistan.
The writer is a retired Brig, war veteran, defence analyst, columnist, author of five books, Vice Chairman Thinkers Forum Pakistan, Director Measac Research Centre. Takes part in TV talk shows, seminars and delivers talks. [email protected]