The Panama Leaks case, highly controversial but equally publicized, is expected to finally reach its zenith. Months of media attention, unnerving political uncertainty, wavering public opinion, and calls for institutional accountability have come to a conclusion; whether the case will darken the country’s democratic bearing or will it trigger a resounding change of scenery- has the entire political, economic, and social spectrum wondering and waiting with bated breath. The Joint Investigation Team (JIT) probing the offshore assets of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his family in line with the Supreme Court’s April 20 judgment in the Panamagate case recently submitted its fourth and final report to the top court.
The five-judge bench that announced the April 20 verdict was split 3-2, with the head judge Justice Asif Saeed Khosa and Justice Gulzar Ahmed ruling against the premier in their dissenting notes while the other three opted for more evidence with the formation of a six-member JIT ordered to investigate the money trail for the Sharif family’s contentious London flats.
It has yet to be seen if the Panama Papers case interrogators, who got 60 days to find answers to 13 questions, acquired satisfactory answers as per the court’s requirement to the questions meant to bring to light the money trail of the London properties under discussion.
Besides evidence, the report consists of interviews and statements made by the Sharif family and other witnesses. The 13 questions raised by the Panama bench of the apex court include ‘How did the Gulf Steel Mills come into being? what led to its sale? where did the sale proceeds end up? How did they leave the confines of Pakistan? Role of the PM’s sons in possessing wealth at a tender age? Whether the Qatari letter is a myth or reality? Where did the working capital for offshore companies come from? Where do the huge sums running into millions gifted by Hussain Nawaz Sharif to Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif drop in from? Among other leads’.
The JIT- that included members from FIA, State Bank of Pakistan, SECP, NAB, ISI, and MI- were empowered to summon anyone to investigate the money-laundering charges, and during the course of the investigations, those who appeared before the JIT once include Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, and Maryam Nawaz, the daughter of the prime minister. Hussain Nawaz, elder son of the prime minister appeared six times while younger son Hassan Nawaz was summoned thrice. Other witnesses included the Pakistani journalist who worked with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists to first break the story in Pakistan, Tariq Shafi, the PM’s nephew, and Rehman Malik.
Yet, without fully comprehending the findings of the JIT or its effect on the eventual verdict of the case, the narratives built around the case by multiple stakeholders has already ensured that whichever way the case inclines, it will create a huge amount political uncertainty as the fate of the country’s democratic health has been vested in the final decision of the courts. It is seldom that the Pakistani courts take a hard stance on issues of corruption, financial malpractice, and political exploitation; but this is a shining example of a judiciary that increasingly wants to disassociate itself from the image of a decaying legal system that is perpetually towing the political establishment’s line. Moreover, the judicial wing of the country, perhaps for the first time, is competing and struggling for more space within Pakistan’s nascent democratic culture; a laudable attempt in putting the right foot forward.
But as the courts were busy carving a new precedence, the defendants or the Sharif family on the other hand, had used this as an opportunity to flex their muscles, assert their political presence, and influence public opinion generated in the wake of the Panama leaks. But more importantly, the defendants have constantly used state platform of the ruling party to cement their political position. While Nawaz Sharif is the head of his party that is currently doing its term in the government, it seems the party platform, government offices, and the advantages of both are centered around providing the Sharif family with either respite, or a solid defense strategy in the Panama case. Earlier, a PML-N senator made some controversial remarks against ‘those investigating the premier’ and going ask far as to threaten JIT members and their families. The outburst was rightly served with a contempt notice by the Supreme Court.
But as the contents of the Panama JIT report are being made public following a leak, the reactions from the PML-N side have become more bold, coarse, and disrespectful. PML-N ministers have not only called the JIT report, that worked under the direct supervision of the Supreme Court, as ‘trash’ and ‘rubbish’, but have unequivocally thrown shade on the country’s institutional ability. According to them, without the inclusion of the Qatari Prince’s letter the JIT report is incomplete and biased. Moreover, Maryam Nawaz, who was explicitly named in the report but not in the SC case, ‘rejected’ the final report submitted by the JIT and said that the contents will be contested in court. The report accuses her of presenting fake documents to the court in addition to owning the properties managed by Minerva Services that links her back to the London flats.
The JIT has found huge disparities the Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif’s family income and family wealth. According to the JIT report the assets of all four respondents were found to be more than the sources of their income. “Significant gap/disparity amongst the known and declared sources of income and the wealth accumulated by the Respondent No. 1, 6, 7 and 8 have been observed,” the JIT observed in its concluding remarks. Respondent 1 refers to Prime Minister Sharif; Respondent 6 was Maryam; Respondent 7 Hussain; while Respondent 8 was Hassan. The report said the financial structure and health of companies in Pakistan having linkages to the Sharif family also do not substantiate their wealth. It also highlighted “irregular movement” of huge sums of money in the form “loans and gifts” between Sharif and his youngest son from various companies set up in Saudi Arabia, the UK and the UAE. The report said the role of offshore companies is critical as they have been identified to be linked with their businesses in UK. The JIT also said that the Sharifs were unable to provide substantive evidence of a reliable money trail, used to buy expensive properties in London.
In addition, PM Nawaz Sharif could be by proxy responsible for tampering records to make himself look clean and innocent in the scandalous Panama Papers case, as the Supreme Court takes legal action against the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan’s chairman Zafar Hijazi for meddling in the investigation to favor Nawaz and his family. The reputation of the Nawaz government is already on thin ice, as more evidence seems to point to a large-scale Pakistan corruption case of Nawaz abusing his authority to enrich himself and his family.
On the other side of the fence, the petitioners of the case that includes PTI chief Imran Khan, Jamaat i islami leader Siraj ul Haq, and Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, have rallied behind the JIT report, going as far as to say it has vindicated their respective positions. According to PTI, by discrediting the JIT report, the Sharif family and the ruling party are now trying to question the validity of the same JIT that was celebrated with much fervour when the Supreme Court verdict came in. Yet, the growing question mark around the Sharif family’s ‘unknown’ source of income has created doubts not only the extent of wealth tucked under Sharif’s carpet, but also his past dealings, his time in office, and the holier than thou image he has created for himself. The opposition stands firm in asking for the PM’s resignation, despite the final decision yet to be given by the SC.
Yet more importantly, for the opposition this is the opening they needed in their election campaign agenda- corruption and accountability- that will spur the opposition’s agenda forward. While PPP’s voice is included in this chorus, their past less than ideal democratic term coupled with poor governance has put them on a backfoot. Moreover, Imran Khan is also expected to be answerable to the courts about the source of income in his offshore company that led to the eventual purchase of his Bani Gala house.
The next hearing of the Panama Papers case is set for next week. The question is: will the Supreme Court uphold the gravity of the JIT’s findings and make the decision? Will PML-N provide counter evidence or will they remain focused on the invalidity of the JIT? Will the opposition spur a counter movement?
But amidst the high profile case which might just rock the structure of our political, economic, and social system one has forgotten the most important question: At a time like today when the country is dealing with multiple problems within and outside its territory, what would be the best decision for Pakistan?
By ShahBano Khan