There is never a dull moment in the circus that is Pakistan politics. The latest twist in the tale is the suspension of the 10 years’ jail sentence of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, daughter Maryam and son-in-law Capt. Safdar and their release on bail. While PML-N supporters are jubilant, anti-Nawaz forces are strategizing how to deal with the new situation.
The three were sentenced in July after being found guilty of corrupt practices related to the ownership of four luxury properties in central London. The Islamabad High Court suspended the 10-year jail term of the three-time premier who has spent 69 days in Adiala jail. The IHC’s division bench comprising Justice Athar Minallah and Justice Miangul Hassan Aurangzeb allowed the petitions of the Sharif family members against the accountability court’s July 6 judgment in the Avenfield Apartments reference. The division bench in its judgment wrote: “The instant writ petition is allowed and the sentence awarded to the petitioners by the accountability court shall remain suspended till the final adjudication of the appeal filed by the petitioner”.
It may be recalled here that over a year back the deposed prime minister was hounded out of office by the Panama Papers scandal. The Supreme Court had disqualified him and, later, the apex court barred him from participating in the elections for life. Later, on July 6, Accountability Judge Muhammad Bashir sentenced Nawaz Sharif to 10 years rigorous imprisonment (RI), Maryam to seven years RI and Safdar to two years (RI). The accused were also barred from contesting elections or holding public office for a period of 10 years after release.
PML-N supporters have hailed the release of Nawaz Sharif as a great victory. PML-N spokesmen have interpreted the IHC verdict as a vindication of their leader. But it is too early to celebrate as the case is yet to be finally settled. There is a long way to go since the IHC still has to rule on the anti-corruption court’s verdict in the case following which the Sharifs or the National Accountability Bureau would appeal to the Supreme Court. NAB has also said that it will appeal the suspension of the prison sentences.
In the opinion of some experts, the proceedings in the Islamabad High Court show that many of the reservations that legal observers had made after the announcement of the original NAB court verdict were not without merit. During the IHC proceedings, NAB prosecutors were questioned over their inability to prove that Nawaz Sharif was the true owner of the London flats or that Maryam Nawaz was part of a fraudulent attempt to cover up the ownership of the flats. The money trail established by NAB was also questioned. Many legal analysts had also criticised NAB’s reliance on the presumption of guilt when it is usual for defendants to be given the benefit of the doubt.
That the IHC has echoed some of these criticisms may be seen as a sign of hope by the Sharifs. But this is a forlorn hope. PML-N has lost the political game. Nawaz Sharif’s conviction and incarceration decisively turned the tide against the PML-N in July’s general elections. However, all said, the IHC decision has injected a new element in the country’s political landscape. The thinking in some quarters is that Nawaz Sharif should take the same hard line which he did after being disqualified by the apex court – a line which landed him in trouble and ultimately in Adiala jail.
Some of the N-League enthusiasts have gone to the extent of advising Nawaz Sharif to hit the GT Road again in a show of defiance to the powers-that-be. But that will be a suicidal course of action. The PTI government is firmly entrenched and the army is on its right side. Politically too, PML-N has lost much ground in central and south Punjab with a large number of heavyweights having joined the PTI camp. What is more, the death of Kulsoom Nawaz has cast a pall of gloom over the Sharif family and Nawaz Sharif looks like a broken man. His image is that of a man who has lost the will to fight.
There is another dimension to the issue. Speculation is rife in the media that the interim relief given to Nawaz Sharif is part of a deal under which he will be allowed to go into exile. In return he will surrender to the State a large part of his illegally accumulated assets. An amount of 10 billion dollars has been quoted in this regard. Although PTI spokespersons have denied that such a deal is in the offing, there are tell-tale straws in the wind.
The Islamabad High Court’s decision to give relief to Nawaz Sharif came while Imran Khan was holding crucial talks with the Saudi royal family on the issue of the Kingdom investing in the CPEC. Around the same time a Qatari prince paid an important visit to Jati Umra. Important visitors from Turkey have met PTI minsters. If all the dots are connected, a secret deal appears to be a distinct possibility.