Sharif’s window of escape

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s hope of release from jail has brightened after a five-member bench of the Supreme Court of Pakistan threw out an appeal by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) for the suspension of an Islamabad High Court (IHC) verdict that had suspended his sentence. The former prime minister may be a free man in few months but the future of his politics and political party still remains uncertain.

Sources say the former prime minister has complained to some “friends” that he had kept quiet on their advice, but still relief has not been provided to him. It is said the “friends“ have assured him that he would be released in a month or two. However, the situation is not very rosy for him. Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, who had headed the five-member Panama case bench, has become the chief justice of Pakistan. In his judgment against Nawaz Sharif, he had quoted The Godfather, a popular novel by Mario Puzo, which recounts the violent tale of a mafia family. However, Justice Khosa was also part of a five-member judge, which upheld the Islamabad High Court (IHC) judgment.

An accountability court had awarded 10-year imprisonment to Nawaz Sharif, seven years to his daughter Maryam Nawaz and one year to his son-in-law Muhammad Safdar on July 6, 2018. Two months later, a division bench of the IHC had accepted their petitions, seeking suspension of their sentence and set them free on September 19, 2018. On December 23, another accountability court sentenced the former prime minister to seven years in prison in the Al Azizia case.

However, the Supreme Court pointed out serious flaws in the IHC judgment in its detailed verdict. It noted that “instead of adhering to the guidelines issued and recommendations made” by the SC in an earlier case regarding shorter formats of orders to be passed in matters of bail, the High Court had issued a 41-page judgment while deciding the Sharifs’ bail petitions. According to the judgment, it is a settled principle of law that while deciding an application for bail or the suspension of sentence, the merits of the case are not commented upon in detail. However, the IHC in its impugned order “had not only undertaken a detailed assessment of the merits of the case but also recorded some categorical conclusions.”

The Apex Court also noted that the Sharifs’ writ petitions for suspension of their sentences were taken up at a time when their main appeals challenging the accountability court verdict in the Avenfield case had already been fixed for hearing. “It is in contrast to judicial norms, because sentences are usually suspended considering that a convict may not be kept in custody till his appeal is fixed for hearing,” it observed. The court clarified that in cases under the National Accountability Ordinance 1999, a High Court may exercise its constitutional jurisdiction to grant bail “only in extraordinary circumstances and in cases of extreme hardship. But in the Sharifs’ cases, no such extraordinary circumstance or hardship has been cited by the IHC.”

Besides the corruption cases, a joint investigation team (JIT) has accused Nawaz Sharif of illegally allotting 14,398 acres of Waqf (trust) property attached to the Baba Farid shrine in Pakpattan to Dewan Ghulam Qutab during his tenure as Punjab chief minister in 1986. The JIT, constituted on the Supreme Court order, said he had allotted the shrine’s land in violation of a High Court order after ordering the withdrawal of a notification on December 17, 1969. The JIT report said he had also allotted land in Hujra Shah Muqeem and property of the shrine of Hafiz Jamalullah Multani illegally.

It is said Prime Minister Imran Khan is unhappy after he was forced to accept PML-N President Shahbaz Sharif as Public Accounts Committee chairman. He thinks the Sharifs are still not being subjected to real accountability, as Nawaz Sharif was allowed to visit abroad when he was facing cases in accountability courts. He is also disturbed that Shahbaz Sharif, despite being arrested by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), is a free man and holding meetings in the Minister’s Enclave and can even summon NAB officials, who are interrogating corruption cases against him. He thinks Shahbaz Sharif can also influence investigation agencies to favour his brother after becoming Public Accounts Committee chairman. Addressing a public gathering recently, Federal Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry claimed the federal government was under immense pressure to strike deals with Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari, but he did not elaborate who was pressurizing Prime Minister Imran Khan.

On the other hand, the PML-N camp is elated at the Supreme Court verdict. However, legal experts are divided. Some say it would benefit the Sharifs in their legal battle in the corruption cases. Others opine the detailed verdict indicates they will be convicted in the end. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz have hardly made any political statement since their release from the Adiala Jail on September 19 last year. Nawaz Sharif has been disqualified from politics for life. Maryam could still have a chance, but her re-entry into politics will not be easy. She was accused of presenting forged documents before the court. An international forensic expert had testified against her in court. She could be pardoned for being a woman, but may not be allowed to run for parliament. She and her father had become “ideological” and started bashing national institutions after the Supreme Court ousted Nawaz Sharif as prime minister. They are patiently waiting for the proceedings against them and may become “ideological” again, if the Supreme Court ruled against them.