Rumours are rife after former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, his daughter Maryam Nawaz and son-in-law Muhammad Safdar were released from jail after the Islamabad High Court (IHC) suspended their sentences. It is being speculated that the relief was provided to Nawaz Sharif after his health deteriorated in jail and he agreed to pay a large amount in a plea bargain in corruption cases against him.
Some say former Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif was constantly in touch with the establishment for relief to his elder brother and ambassadors of two Arab countries had also taken up the issue with newly-elected Prime Minister Imran Khan in their meetings. Rumour has it that the elderly mother of Nawaz Sharif had also phoned a senior military officer for his release on humanitarian grounds. Her plea was heard sympathetically but there was no assurance. Others claim the former prime minister had to pay Rs50b in the plea bargain. They say the timing of the verdict was significant as Nawaz Sharif had been released when Prime Minister Imran Khan was on a visit to Saudi Arabia.
However, legal experts opine the relief could be temporary and the verdict may be overruled by the Supreme Court. They say the Sharifs will have to prove themselves innocent in the court under the accountability laws and the Islamabad High Court has not declared them innocent and only suspended their sentences till two more corruption cases against them are decided and their appeals are finalised. Nawaz Sharif was disqualified for life by the Supreme Court in the Al Aziziya Steel Mills case and it is still being heard by an accountability court. The case will eventually land him in trouble, they say. Nawaz Sharif’s supporters claim he had been jailed in fake cases, only to pave the way for Imran Khan to win the election and he will unite the opposition to make the situation difficult for the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government after his release.
The Sharifs were sentenced in July by an accountability court after being found guilty of corrupt practices related to the ownership of four luxury properties in central London. However, the Islamabad High Court suspended their jail terms after 69 days in Adiala jail. In the July 6 verdict, Accountability Judge Muhammad Bashir had sentenced Nawaz Sharif to 10 years rigorous imprisonment, Maryam Nawaz to seven years and Safdar to two years. They were also disqualified to contest elections or hold public offices for a period of 10 years after release.
In its reaction, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) questioned why relief was always provided to the Sharifs. PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari termed the IHC verdict a “big relief to the Sharif family”. In a statement, he said, “The PPP and Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto fought for the independence of the judiciary but the party has also suffered at the hands of judicial verdicts but not once have we disrespected the courts.” He said he could not comment on the legal aspects of the verdict as courts were yet to decide the appeals. “We believe that our courts should not be seen as part of political victimization,” he added. PPP Punjab President Qamar Zaman Kaira said that as soon as the accountability court had sentenced the PML-N leader, it was being expected that the Islamabad High Court would bail him out. “Nawaz Sharif has always been granted relief by the courts,” he said in a statement.
Analysts say it is great relief to the Sharifs, but it could be temporary, as they are facing three references in court and the trial court had convicted them in one reference. They say the verdict is more beneficial for Maryam than for Nawaz, who has been disqualified for life and that his disqualification is not under discussion, whereas for Maryam, it was the only thing against her. The relief for Maryam is also greater as the suspension will provide more space for her to manoeuver and continue her political career. She is alleged to have presented a fake trust deed in the Supreme Court, which entails seven years rigorous imprisonment. Her case will ultimately reach the Supreme Court.
Lawyers opine the suspension of the sentence is only a concession granted to an accused under Section 426 of the Criminal Procedure Code and does not mean that the conviction is erased or suspended. The sentence in the Avenfield reference has not been quashed but only suspended till the Islamabad High Court (IHC) delivers its verdict on appeals against the sentence. The court intends to fast track the hearings. In case the appeals lead to the overturning of the accountability court verdict, it will provide an opportunity to the PML-N to maintain that Nawaz Sharif was sentenced to stop him from leading the election campaign. Even if the Avenfield judgment is struck down, Nawaz still faces two more references against him though Maryam and Safdar can heave a sigh of relief as there is presently no other case against them. Even if Nawaz Sharif is held innocent in the other two cases, he will remain disqualified from holding public office on account of the Supreme Court judgment in the Panama Papers case.
There is also speculation that the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) failed to present its case in the court on merit. Critics say the NAB is deliberately working to provide relief to the Sharifs. Earlier, it had provided bigger relief to the Sharif family in the Hudaibiya Paper Mills case. The suspension of the verdict of the accountability court has also maligned the image of the courts in Pakistan and the accountability process. There are also apprehensions that the Islamabad High Court (IHC) has not heard the case on the principles of the accountability laws, which ask the accused to prove their innocence in corruption cases. Nawaz Sharif’s son had admitted owning the London flats when he had no source of income and depended on his father. The burden of proof was on the Sharif family but the Islamabad High Court ordered the NAB to prove them guilty. It is hoped the flaws in the cases will be removed by the Supreme Court of Pakistan.