Nawaz Sharif who had been given refuge in Saudi Arabia after the coup in October 1999, is unlikely to find friends there after the Saudi purge. Photo: Reuters

Pakistan’s apex court on Thursday made life a little tougher for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif by reviving a 17 year-old money laundering case against him and forming a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) to examine how his wealth was transferred to Qatar then invested in properties in London’s Mayfair.

Despite ruling that there was insufficient evidence to order the PM’s removal from office after investigating allegations arising from last year’s Panama Papers document dump, the court has effectively reopened the Hudaibiya Paper Mills default case against the Sharif family.

Filed by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) in the year 2000, it was quashed by Lahore High Court (LHC) in 2014. Procedurally, the NAB could have made an appeal in the Supreme Court, but didn’t. The pertinent detail of the case is a confessional statement given by the incumbent finance minister Ishaq Dar wherein he divulged information about money laundered by the Sharifs in the 1990s. Dar later reneged on his statement, saying it was recorded under duress.

In his 43-page, handwritten statement, given before a magistrate in April 2000, Senator Dar disclosed that he opened two foreign currency accounts in the names of four acquaintances – namely Sikandara Masood Qazi, Talat Masood Qazi, Nuzhat Gohar and Kashif Masood Qazi – living in the UK and transferred some US$17.6 million to them. He said the money later landed in the accounts of Hudaibya Paper Mills. The NAB handed Dar a pardon on April 25, 2000.

What difference does it make that Dar gave the statement “under duress”? Why didn’t the NAB appeal in May 2014? If the confession pointed to a clear money trail, why was it abjured? These questions may well be posed by JIT, intensifying the Sharif family’s discomfort.

By giving a split verdict – two of the five dissenting judges favored disqualification of Sharif but the majority voted for the JIT – the court, in fact, averted a political crisis in the country ahead of elections which are due next year. The judges were, however, unanimous in concluding that the Sharifs have failed to substantiate their investments in Qatar and the UK with a valid money trail.

In summing up, Justice Asif Saeed Khosa remarked: “In normal circumstances, such an exercise could be conducted by the NAB but when its Chairman appears to be indifferent and even unwilling to perform his part, we are constrained to look elsewhere and, therefore, constitute a Joint Investigation Team.”

“I demand Nawaz Sharif resign until the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) completes its probe. If you’re cleared within 60 days, you can return”

The JIT will comprise members from the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), the Security & Exchange Commission of Pakistan (SECP), the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP), Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Military Intelligence (M.I.). The team has been asked to submit a report within 60 days. However, it is not clear how independently its work will be with Nawaz Sharif still in the saddle. “A decision which the Supreme Court could not make… How will [officers] under the PM decide the case?,” enquired the Pakistan People’s Party’s Co-Chairman, Asif Ali Zardari, at a press conference on Thursday.

The main opposition parties are demanding the resignation of the prime minister to pave the way for a transparently impartial investigation. “I demand Nawaz Sharif resign until the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) completes its probe. If you’re cleared within 60 days, you can return,” the chairman of Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf, Imran Khan, told the media on Thursday. The Pakistan People’s Party, Jamaat-e-Islami and Awami Muslim League have also demanded Sharif step down on moral grounds.

Justice Khosa opened his dissenting remarks in the detailed judgment – which consists of 560 pages – with a reference to a quote from Honore de Balzac that is cited at the beginning of The Godfather, Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel about a violent Mafia family: “Behind every great fortune, there is a crime.”

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