Pakistan’s Supreme Court is taking its time to decide a case with profound political implications, reports Rahimullah Yusufzai
It is a court saga that could spell the end for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s days in power, or damage the political career of his main rival. But a month after the last of 26 hearings in the Panama Papers case, Pakistan was still waiting for a verdict by five judges of the country’s Supreme Court, headed by Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa.
No one has campaigned harder than Imran Khan, the cricketer-turned-politician, to have Sharif unseated, first on allegations of rigging the May 2013 elections, now on charges that he corruptly helped his two sons and a daughter to illegally transfer money abroad, to set up offshore companies and avoid taxes. The case against the Prime Minister’s family stems from the Panama Papers leaks,which mentioned his children as owners of offshore companies, but didn’t directly blame him.
The money trail raised uncomfortable questions: whetherthe Prime Minister and his children answered them to the satisfaction of the probing judges remains to be seen. However, remarks by the judges during the case appeared to show that they werelittleimpressed with both the answers by Sharif family members, and the evidence presented by the petitioners seeking the Prime Minister’s disqualification, on the grounds that he was dishonest and untrustworthy in his financial dealings.
For Sharif, Khan and many others, this has become a do-or-die issue. Not only reputations are at stake, but also the general election scheduled to be held next year. Hence the fevered speculation about the highest court’s likely verdict. Sections of the media claimedto have obtained leaks about the judgement that would be delivered, even though the judges were still understood to be holding consultations and writing the verdict. In a case of such deep political implications, they had little desire to hurry.
That has not stopped daily discussion of the case at every level. Sharif refused to comment when journalists asked him about the likely verdict, pointing out that the matter was sub judice, and complaining that the speculation amounted to insulting the judiciary. But even his party colleagues were not holding back, commenting freely on the proceedings and declaring that the opposition parties had failed to prove the Prime Minister’s involvement in tax evasion, money-laundering or any other illegality.
During the hearings there was a media spectacle every day outside the Supreme Court as Sharif’s aides and supporters, and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) activists loyal to Imran Khan, gathered in significant numbers to engage in point-scoring on live television. While the lawyers arguedthe case inside the court, politicians disputed outside, openly seeking to influence the judges as well as public opinion.
However, the judges made it clear, equally publicly, that they would brook no pressure from any quarter and would deliver judgement on the basis of hard evidence. They reprimanded lawyers, particularly one representing Jamaat-i-Islami, one of Pakistan’s biggest Islamic parties and one of the petitioners against Sharif, for coming up with frivolous arguments, wasting time by repetition and failing to provide credible evidence against the Prime Minister and his children.
The lawyers representing the Prime Minister’s family also came in for close questioning about the money trail and the way his children earned so much money in such a short time. The generosity of a member of Qatar’s royal family, who provided large sums of money to the Sharif children to do business in Britain, Gulf countries and elsewhere was a major topic of discussion in Pakistan. The largesse of influential Qataris and Saudis towards Sharif was the subject of both satire and serious questioning among many Pakistanis, who wondered whether he had compromised national interests for personal gain.
Most speculation, particularly on social media, was that the Prime Minister would be disqualified, and went on to guess who would take his place. Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is a family-run party named after him, which he leads with his younger brother Shahbaz Sharif, chief minister of Pakistan’s biggest province, Punjab. The Prime Minister’s daughter, Maryam Safdar, has been playing an increasingly significant role in party affairs; so has his nephew, Hamza Shahbaz Sharif.
Such is the stranglehold of the Sharif family on the party, which has a comfortable majority in the National Assembly, that its lawmakers and officials are accountable to the Prime Minister alone. If he is ousted, he would choose a successor to serve the remaining 12 months of his five-year term, and would continue to call the shots while staying in the background.
Members of Pakistan’s superior judiciary, who have been fairly independent and assertive in recent years, know that the Panama Papers case is also seen as a test for them. They are aware that removing an elected prime minister could cause a political crisis, and is not a decision to be taken lightly. However, they would also like to send a strong message that the law should prevail. And there is the larger issue of corruption and accountability in a country where the rich and powerful are seldom brought to book.
With so much at stake, it is no wonder that everyone in Pakistan is waiting with bated breath for the outcome of one of the most intense and closely-watched legal battles in the country’s history.