AT the conclusion of the Panama Papers hearings in the Supreme Court, Justice Asif Khosa, head of the special five-member bench, emphasised that the justices would analyse the matter in depth and would therefore need some time. That was on Feb 23. In the nearly six weeks from then, the Panama Papers issue and the political fate of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif have remained where they have been for a year now — at the centre of the national political discourse. Indeed, yesterday marked one year since the Panama Papers were made public, triggering an international outcry and ensnaring wealthy, politically connected individuals across the globe. The Justice Khosa-led SC bench was right to call for political and media restraint throughout the hearings and it has been right to not succumb to outside pressure for a quick judgement or short order. Yet, an argument can be made that further delay and the political paralysis that it will bring are undesirable and it is time for a definitive and well-substantiated decision by the court.
By now, it is clear that the hearings themselves have become historic. While the Sharif family and the PML-N have tried hard to downplay the legal significance of the petitions, the revelations in court have cast a shadow over the first family’s credibility. It is for the court to decide if Prime Minister Sharif and his children are legally liable for their actions, but the political damage is undeniable. The shifting explanations are made worse by the emerging possibility of the first daughter, Maryam Nawaz, as a future party leader. Surely, the rules of the democratic order ought to have developed beyond what was considered acceptable when Mr Sharif made his political debut over three decades ago. At the very least, the next generation of the Sharifs do not appear to understand that in a true democratic order, public representatives must be held to an exemplary standard of financial conduct. Instead, the Sharifs seem to believe that a certain level of political popularity ought to excuse lapses and misjudgements when it comes to managing family finances.
The SC will necessarily have to give a verdict on the Sharifs that strictly adheres to the letter and spirit of the law. Where the court may have some space to be more expansive is in the realm of recommendations that can strengthen the democratic order by tightening the financial rules and disclosures that public representatives must abide by. While the court must be mindful of separation of powers, it is also true that there is a political consensus in the country that the Panama Papers matter ought to be settled by the courts. If the court recommends a specific set of actions to promote financial transparency and accountability, the political class may find itself bound to comply and the democratic order possibly strengthened as a result.
Published in Dawn, April 4th, 2017