Rahimullah Yusufzai reports on the latest developments in the Sharif family saga, and the continuing pressures on Pakistan’s new leader
The legal battle being waged by deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to clear his name has taken a new turn following his recent release on bail, along with his daughter Maryam and son-in-law, retired Captain Mohammad Safdar.
On September 19 the Islamabad High Court suspended the sentence imposed earlier in July by the Accountability Court, which had convicted Sharif of corruption and sentenced him to 10 years’ imprisonment, as well as fining him heavily. Maryam was sentenced to seven years in jail along with a fine, while her husband Safdar was given a one-year jail sentence.
The National Accountability Bureau (NAB), which filed the case against Sharif in the Accountability Court for failing to provide information about the money trail, has decided to challenge the Islamabad High Court’s verdict in the Supreme Court of Pakistan. This means the legal battle will continue in different courts in the foreseeable future.
The judgment by the Islamabad High Court triggered controversy and the two judges, Justice Athar Minallah and Justice Miangul Hassan Aurangzeb, were praised by some and criticised by others, depending on their political views. The court’s verdict was a bit surprising even though the observations made by the judges during the course of the proceedings showed they had serious reservations about the evidence produced by the prosecution to prove the NAB’s claim that Nawaz Sharif, rather than his UK-based sons Hussain and Hasan, was the actual owner of the plush Avenfield flats in London.
Although the Islamabad High Court suspended the Accountability Court’s judgment and the sentence awarded to the three accused, the case isn’t over yet. It could take more twists and turns and is like a Sword of Damocles hanging over Nawaz Sharif’s head. Besides, two other corruption references are currently being heard in the Accountability Court and the verdict in these cases could also go against the Sharif family, keeping it tied up in legal issues for years.
Court battles have already taken their toll on Nawaz Sharif, who was prime minister for a record three times in Pakistan before being removed from office and disqualified for life from holding public office by an order of the Supreme Court of Pakistan. His daughter and political heir, Maryam, has suffered with him: the two were jailed at the Adyala Prison in Rawalpindi where the late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, founder of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Benazir Bhutto’s father, was imprisoned before being hanged, charged with the murder of a political opponent. Maryam’s plans to build her political career have been disrupted for the timebeing, but she could make a comeback in the years ahead. As for Sharif’s two sons, they are wanted in certain court cases and would be arrested immediately should they return to Pakistan.
As if all these troubles weren’t enough, the Sharif family suffered a tragedy when Nawaz Sharif’s wife, Kulsoom Nawaz, died in London on September 13 after losing her own long battle with throat cancer. The tragic circumstances of her death, far from home at a time when her husband, daughter and son-in-law were imprisoned in Pakistan, caused an outpouring of grief among the people. Her funeral in Lahore was huge, showing that Nawaz Sharif continued to enjoy popular support in the country, particularly in his home province of Punjab, despite being convicted and disqualified by the courts. Kulsoom Nawaz was praised by both friends and foes for her struggle for democracy when she campaigned against military ruler General Pervez Musharraf, who had ousted the democratically elected Prime Minister in a coup in October 1999 and then jailed and exiled him to Saudi Arabia.
Though Nawaz Sharif and Maryam are keeping a low-profile after their release from prison and still mourning the death of Kulsoom, they won’t keep quiet for long. Aware that they could be sent to jail again if their bail is rescinded or they are convicted in the two other corruption references, father and daughter, along with Sharif’s younger brother Shahbaz, who is presently president of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), will be keen to keep up the pressure on both the courts and the newly elected Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government headed by Prime Minister Imran Khan. For now, the PTI has replaced the PML-N as the ruling party at both the Centre and in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, and is part of the ruling coalition led by the newly formed Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) in Balochistan. Though the PTI is in opposition in Sindh, the home province of the Bhutto family that is leading the former ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), it has joined hands with the main faction of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) to challenge the PPP.
Imran Khan was installed as prime minister on August 18, but he has courted controversy and faced criticism even during this short period in power. It is said there was no honeymoon period for the PTI government as it was criticised by the losing political parties for winning ‘a rigged election’ and for being too close to the powerful military. So severe was the criticism that Imran Khan had to urge the media to give his government at least three months to start delivering before condemning it. The government tried to respond to the rigging allegations by agreeing to form a parliamentary committee with equal representation from the treasury and opposition benches to investigate the issue.
The composition and growing size of the federal cabinet, as well as the provincial cabinets in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa ruled by the PTI, also earned criticism. Apart from the controversial choice of chief ministers, governors and ministers, there were accusations that most of the federal ministers had been changing parties and had served in the cabinet of military dictator General Musharraf. It was pointed out that there wasn’t any real representation of the youth even though young voters had played a key role in the PTI’s election victory. As the Prime Minister began inducting old friends such as Zulfi Bokhari, said to be a British national, in his cabinet, he was accused of going back on his promise to make appointments on merit. One reason for taking more ministers was the PTI’s inadequate representation in the National Assembly as it had to strike coalition-making deals with at least four parties or alliances to gain a majority. It had to make compromises on policy issues and induct the nominee of its coalition partners in the cabinet to make them happy.
On a personal level, questions were raised regarding the Prime Minister’s austerity measures when it was revealed that he was using a helicopter to fly from his Banigala home in Islamabad to his office. The reason given by the government was that driving on the busy Islamabad roads would cause inconvenience to the general public and increase security risks. However, critics weren’t convinced. Generally, though, there has been appreciation for Imran Khan’s refusal to live in the sprawling and luxurious Prime Minister House, cutting down its employees and auctioning the 102 vehicles kept at the disposal of the previous premiers and his staff. The governor houses in Lahore and Karachi were opened to the general public to walk on the lawns and visit the zoo maintained there, though the newly appointed governors belonging to the PTI continue to work and live there.
The Prime Minister was also criticised for undertaking foreign visits to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, despite having promised that he will focus attention on domestic issues and refrain from overseas trips for three months. He also did not fulfil his promise to fly on commercial flights with other passengers, taking a special Pakistan Air Force plane to undertake his foreign trip.
Khan took everyone by surprise by announcing that the Afghan and Bengali refugees living in Karachi for over four decades would be given Pakistani citizenship to curb crime, as many among them have resorted to illegal activities to survive. There was a strong negative reaction to his announcement, particularly from the PPP, which is in power in Sindh, to have Karachi as a provincial capital as well as from the MQM, which is a coalition partner of the PTI, and the Baloch nationalist party, BNM-Mengal, which is an ally of the PTI. The very next day, the Prime Minister had to clarify that the issue of citizenship had not been taken yet and was under consideration. It was obvious that proper consultation with the PTI’s allies, provincial governments and the security organisations had not been done before the announcement was made by the PM during his visit to Karachi.
The retraction of the prime minister’s statement provided an opportunity to the opposition parties to repeat their claim that he had become adept at making ‘U-turns’, due to his habit of issuing and taking back statements and changing policies. Those sympathetic to Khan argued that he has never held public office in the past and should be given time.In any case, given Nawaz Sharif’s continuing popular support in the country, Imran Khan’s failings could prove to be Sharif’s gains.