As anticipated by some keen political observers, the Supreme Court verdict in the Panama case is a split one. There is neither a clean chit nor disqualification for PM Nawaz Sharif. The final verdict, ordering the formation of a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) to probe how the Nawaz Sharif family’s money was transferred to Qatar was 3-2 among the five-judge bench, with two dissenting notes from Justice Asif Saeed Khosa and Justice Gulzar Ahmed.
It was an epochal judicial case: one of its kind in the country’s judicial history. In the dock was prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his family accused of corruption by major political parties of Pakistan,the PTI being the most prominent among them. The hearings were initiated by the Chief Justice of Pakistan following a dangerous state of confrontation between the PTI and PML-N over earth shaking disclosures in the Panama Papers about the offshore accounts and properties held by the Sharif family abroad. The Panama case hearings took about two months and then after 57 days of wait, the court delivered its verdict, saying that it does not have enough evidence to give a clear decision, but it does have enough doubts to demand a joint investigation team to probe Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his family.
The two judges who ruled against PM Nawaz Sharif said he should be disqualified as he could no longer be considered “honest” and “truthful” (ameen and sadiq), whereas the other three were in favour of forming a JIT to definitively answer the question of whether the allegations against the prime minister were true or not.
The bench, comprising Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, Justice Gulzar Ahmed, Justice Ejaz Afzal Khan, Justice Azmat Saeed and Justice Ijazul Ahsan, had examined arguments presented by the Pakistan Tehreek-iInsaf (PTI), the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), the Watan Party and the All Pakistan Muslim League, who framed the case out of court as a campaign against corruption. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Maryam Nawaz, Hassan Nawaz, Hussain Nawaz, retired Capt. Muhammad Safdar (the PM’s sonin-law) and Finance Minister Ishaq Dar were among the respondents in the case.
In its short order, the Supreme Court has remarked that there are many questions about the foreign assets of Nawaz Sharif family that remain unanswered. These relate to the ownership of Gulf Steel Mill and London flats as well as the unverified Qatari letters. In the operative part of the order, the Court has criticized the NAB chairman for failing to do his job and decided to constitute a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) comprising representatives of FIA, NAB, SECP, SBP, ISI and MI The JIT shall investigate the case and collect evidence regarding the culpability of Nawaz Sharif and his family members and submit its periodical reports every two weeks. The JIT shall complete the investigation and submit its final report before the said Bench within a period of sixty days from the date of its constitution. The order requests the Chief Justice to constitute a Special Bench to ensure implementation of this judgment so that the “investigation into the allegations may not be left in a blind alley.”
From a political perspective, the verdict has turned out to be a winwin situation for all. While the verdict has been hailed by the ruling party as a victory,the PTI says that its point of view has been upheld by the Supreme Court by its decision to form a JIT.The PTI has also demanded that the prime minister temporarily step aside to allow the JIT to work independently.
Although political observers and some leading political figures are not very optimistic about the JIT delivering any positive outcome for the opposition, let us hope the JIT will fulfil its task within the stipulated time paving the way for justice to be done in the larger interest of the country. For, at the heart of the Panama case lies the principle of accountability of the powerful. Without strict accountability, democracy cannot survive or flourish.
In the days ahead, political pressure will increase on the PML-N government. The PTI and PPP have already demanded that Prime Minister Nawaz resign on moral grounds. But as the past record shows, Nawaz Sharif is a hard nut to crack. Come what may, he will not step down from his high seat which is the source of all the powers he wields.
A special reason why Nawaz Sharif would like to remain in power is the prospect of early elections. In Pakistan polls are a game of patronage. From this perspective, a sitting government enjoys a distinct advantage over the opposition parties. The opposition is divided and disparate but even so it will not miss any opportunity to attack the government which is facing several challenges, including the unabated prolonged summer power outrages and rising consumer prices.
The coming few months will be a severe test of the political acumen of both the government and the opposition. The opposition will be on the offensive while the government will be in a defensive position. If an adverse verdict comes out of the Panama investigations, the PML-N will have a hard time retaining its perch in power.