The acquittal of former President Asif Ali Zardari in an illegal assets case, which was the last corruption case against him, has triggered debate in the country on the process of accountability and the efficacy of graft-busting institutions. Some say the release is a result of his warming relations with the establishment after the disqualification of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
The former president, who faced almost 50 corruption, kidnapping for ransom, murder, attempted murder and even drug smuggling cases and spent almost 12 years jail in his 30-year political career, is known for managing his affairs adroitly. He became the president of Pakistan, even though he faced the serious allegations. His acquittal in the last case has raised serious questions about the judicial and political system in the country.
Like the Sharifs, who have been in politics for over 35 years, nobody knows better than Asif Zardari about flaws in the Pakistani legal system and how to benefit from them. Besides faulty investigations by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), lack of substantial evidence and witnesses presented before the court resulted in his acquittal in the last NAB reference, the verdict for the case says. Conflicting statements of the witnesses also weakened the prosecution’s case. The original record of his bank accounts and offshore companies was not presented before the court and the prosecutor failed to prove that the assets belonged to the former president. NAB’s chief prosecutor explained to the media that they had a list of Aif Zardari’s foreign assets but the court did not admit them as evidence because officials, who had gathered the proofs, were not available to authenticate them as one official had died and the other was settled abroad. The list of his assets in Pakistan, provided to the court, had mysteriously gone missing from the record during 16 years of the case hearing. He was acquitted because of technical reasons, rather than being found innocent.
Asif Zardari’s release has come at a time when NAB has filed corruption references against disgraced former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his family. It will rekindle the hope of the Sharif family to get away with corruption and money laundering cases. However, the supervisory judge of the Supreme Court, who has been appointed to oversee the cases, will be their biggest headache. NAB has also not been left with much space to manoeuvre and benefit them. The Sharif family has filed a review petition against the appointment of the supervisory judge. If their plea was accepted and NAB was allowed to work “independently”, the Sharifs would be out of the woods soon.
With the general election only less than eight months away, the timing of Asif Zardari’s acquittal is significant. Earlier, an accountability court had acquitted him in an 18-year-old SGS-Cotecna corruption case. The court said NAB could not provide solid evidence and documentation presented before it was incomplete. It was strange that the documentation could not be completed even in 18 years. It pointed out lack of interest from the PML-N government and NAB.
In fact, the PPP has achieved a number of successes on the legal front recently, after some key figures were released by the courts. The relief to the party in quick succession created suspicions that it was a result of a secret deal between the PML-N and the PPP. It is a fact that the government can provide relief to an accused through a number of ways, because all state institutions work under it. It can help the accused through flawed investigations, inadequate proof and state prosecutors’ lack of interest in trials. Some say the relief to the PPP is a result of improved relations between the party and the Pakistani establishment, mediated by the international establishment. Earlier, the Supreme Court allowed model Ayyan Ali, involved in laundering billions of rupees for Asif Zardari, to travel abroad. The Islamabad High Court acquitted former Religious Affairs Minister Hamid Saeed Kazmi in a mega Haj corruption case that had been under trial since 2010. The Sindh High Court (SHC) granted the biggest relief to the PPP when it granted bail to Asif Zardari’s close aide Dr. Asim Hussain in Rs480b corruption cases. The Islamabad High Court also granted transitory bail to former Sindh Minister Sharjeel Memon, who was charged with Rs5 billion corruption, and the Sindh High Court approved his temporary bail.
It appears the two parties have struck a secret deal not to pursue cases against each other. The last PPP government never initiated any proceedings against the Sharif brothers in money laundering or corruption cases, which had been pending for years. It also failed to pursue the Asghar Khan case. It is said that the then President Asif Zardari had specifically ordered his ministers not to reopen the pending corruption and money laundering cases against Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif. Besides, despite a clear Supreme Court order in the Asghar Khan case, the PPP government did not initiate investigations against the Sharifs for allegedly receiving huge amounts of money from the ISI.
The then PPP government forced NAB not to pursue the cases against the Sharifs and when an application was filed in an accountability court for reopening the cases in 2009, the accountability court sought the opinion of the NAB chairman, which was mandatory under the law. However, the NAB chairman did not give his opinion because of strict government orders. The PML-N paid back the favours when it came to power in 2013, and Asif Zardari was acquitted in all corruption cases.
A few months ago, Lyari gang war criminal Uzair Baloch, in his confessional statement before a judicial magistrate, said that he had forcibly vacated 30 to 40 bungalows and apartments near Bilawal House in Karachi on the orders of Asif Zardari. He said he had also helped the former president and his close aide Awais Muzaffar Tappi to occupy 14 sugar mills in Sindh. In his shocking revelations, he said the bounty on his head and criminal cases against him had been dropped after the intervention of Asif Zardari and his sister Faryal Talpur. This in spite of the fact that he also confessed to leaking “sensitive information” to foreign agencies.
As far as known, in Pakistan, Asif Zardari’s disputed properties include acres of agricultural land in Nawabshah, Hyderabad and in the vicinity of the Simli Dam and real estate in Karachi, including plots at prime locations in DHA. He owns 17 offshore companies in the British Virgin Islands, five in Florida and various properties in London, including the Surrey estate. His assets in the US are at prime locations in Texas and Florida. He also has 27 bank accounts in London, Paris, and Switzerland. He owns companies left by the late Benazir Bhutto in London. The Supreme Court will have to form a joint investigation team (JIT), like the Panama case JIT against the Sharifs, to investigate cases against Asif Zardari and all those named in the Panama leaks, otherwise the accountability process in the country would remain doubtful and the law a cruel joke.