Pakistan’s top court is on the verge of handing down an historic decision relating to the Panama Papers scandal. The court’s verdict will put an end to a legal battle involving the family of prime minister Nawaz Sharif that revolves around accusations of money-laundering and multi-million pound properties in London’s Mayfair.
The Supreme Court’s five-member bench, led by Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, took up petitions on October 20 last year and concluded its hearing on February 23. “[The] Supreme Court’s verdict will change the future of Pakistan,” said Imran Khan, the Chairman of PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf), one of three political parties challenging the legality of the Sharif family’s offshore assets, in January.
The other two parties involved are the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and the Awami Muslim League (AML). The main opposition Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has not contested the case in court, having instead campaigned for a judicial commission to probe the allegations against the prime minister.
Both camps – Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) party and the petitioning parties – have signaled confidence about the upcoming court decision. However, some have expressed distrust over its delay. “The court is creating doubt that justice is being denied,” Nauman Wazir, a PTI senator and renowned industrialist, told Asia Times last week. He cautioned that an indecisive verdict would send a message that white collar crimes are unpunishable in Pakistan and stressed that the burden of proof lay with the accused, who had admitted owning the impugned London properties.
“If a few thousands crooks are sent behind bars, the future of millions of people, impoverished by wide-ranging corruption and malpractices, will be secured,” Siraj-Ul-Haq, the Amir of Jamaat-e-Islami told Asia Times in Peshawar. He underlined the need for an impartial and abiding verdict that would satisfy Pakistanis’ demands for good governance, adding that he feared there would be mayhem if the court failed to deliver one.
In the government camp, there has been a palpable sense of unease. That, certainly, is apparent from some of the public statements of PML (N) leaders. Responding to remarks from judges that there were certain “pages missing” from the prime minister’s affairs, Federal Railways Minister Khwaja Saad Rafique is reported to have said at a public gathering: “All pages of Nawaz Sharif’s Life are intact and if someone cannot see them, the fault lies in their eyes.”
“If a few thousands crooks are sent behind bars, the future of millions of people, impoverished by wide-ranging corruption and malpractices, will be secured”
The governing party has long had a testy relationship with the judiciary. In 1997, PML(N) workers occupied the Supreme Court building and forced Chief Justice Sajjad Ali Shah to suspend court proceedings in a contempt of court case against Sharif, who was then in his second term in office and is now in his third.
What will the court’s decision be? Is Nawaz Sharif on his way out? Given Pakistan’s chequered judicial history, these are tough questions to answer. Pakistan has elections coming up next year and cynics say it’s unlikely that the court will want to bring the government down at this juncture. It has also made known its dissatisfaction with the quality of the evidence produced by petitioners and respondents. “The court cannot give a judgment on the basis of disputed material,” Justice Ejaz Afzal Khan has said.
The case originates from an enormous leak last April from the database of a Panama-based law firm, Mossack Fonseca. The leak exposed more than 200,000 offshore entities around the world, and implicated hundreds of Pakistani politicians, industrialists, business people, judges and luminaries, including the Sharif family. Under intense public pressure, the prime minister twice addressed the nation following the leak, announcing, “I will make a judicial commission under the supervision of a retired Supreme Court judge to present me and my family for accountability.” The opposition and government could not agree on the terms of reference of any judicial commission and the matter ended up in the Supreme Court instead.