Neither a clean chit nor a disqualification: the drawn out Supreme Court (SC) case to disqualify Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for allegedly misleading the nation on his family's involvement in corrupt practices, as outlined in the Panamagate scandal, took a new turn today with the court ordering the formation of a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) to probe how the family's money was transferred to Qatar.
The verdict was split 3-2 among the five-judge bench, with two dissenting notes from Justice Asif Saeed Khosa and Justice Gulzar Ahmed. Justice Ejaz Afzal authored the majority opinion in the 540-page verdict.
The court's short order can be read here.
The two judges who ruled against PM Nawaz Sharif said he should be disqualified as he could no longer be considered 'honest' and 'truthful' (ameen and sadiq), whereas the other three were in favour of forming a JIT to definitively answer the question of whether the allegations against the prime minister were true or not.
The prime minister and his party breathed a collective sigh of relief as the fear of an 'extreme verdict' — the premier's ouster — dissolved and gave way to celebrations.
The bench, comprising Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, Justice Gulzar Ahmed, Justice Ejaz Afzal Khan, Justice Azmat Saeed and Justice Ijazul Ahsan, had examined arguments presented by the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), the Watan Party and the All Pakistan Muslim League, who framed the case out of court as a campaign against corruption.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Maryam Nawaz, Hasan Nawaz, Hussain Nawaz, retired Capt Muhammad Safdar (the PM's son-in-law) and Finance Minister Ishaq Dar were among the respondents in the case.
The petitioners had touted the revelations brought forth in the Panama Papers, published by the International Consortium of Journalists on April 3, 2016, as 'evidence' that the premier had lied to the nation in an address to Parliament where he had 'explained' his position following the leaks.
Justice Asif Saeed Khosa began announcing the final verdict on the case on April 20, 2017, in Courtroom 1 at 2:00pm at the apex court to an audience of over 400 people, according to TV reports.
"A thorough investigation is required," Justice Khosa concluded as he read out the the court's verdict.
The five-judge bench said it was not satisfied with regards to the money trail provided by the Sharif family's counsels and ordered the formation of a JIT to investigate the Sharifs' business dealings abroad.
The justices also asserted that the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) and National Accountability Bureau (NAB) had been unsuccessful in playing their role effectively.
The JIT is to include officials from NAB, FIA, the State Bank of Pakistan, Inter-Services Intelligence and Military Intelligence, and will be led by an assistant director general-level officer from the FIA.
The names of the members of the JIT must be announced within seven days, the judges said, and a probe report must be released within 60 days of the JIT's formation. The JIT must report its progress to the court every two weeks.
A special bench of the Supreme Court will also be constituted to examine the case under Section 184/3 of the Constitution.
The court further said that: "upon receipt of the reports, periodic or final of the JIT, as the case may be, the matter of disqualification of respondent No. 1 [Nawaz Sharif] shall be considered. If found necessary for passing an appropriate order in this behalf, [Nawaz Sharif or any other person may be summoned and examined."
A complete copy of the judgement was shared by the Supreme Court on its website.
'Ready for investigation'
The premier's daughter, Maryam Nawaz, tweeted a photo of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, his family and PML-N leaders celebrating the verdict with smiles and embraces.
Defence Minister Khawaja Asif told reporters that: "They have said what the PM already said in his letter ─ that a commission should be constituted to investigate the matter."
"We are ready for all kinds of investigation," Asif said. "It has been established today that any evidence or sacrifices given by our opponents in the SC were not enough. We have succeeded."
Railways Minister Saad Rafique asserted that the PML-N would "fully cooperate with the JIT and the court's decision will be respected."
The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) should also respect the court's decision, Rafique said, amidst slogans of "Go Imran, go."
Minister for Planning and Development Ahsan Iqbal termed it a "historic victory" for the PML-N. "The minority judgement shows that the PTI represents a minority in Pakistan."
"Conspirators have been defeated yet again after the dharna. After suffering successive electoral defeats IK's desire to deseat PM Nawaz Sharif through non-ballot means failed again," Iqbal said in a tweet.
PTI leader and lawyer Fahad Chaudhry said that PML-N leaders celebrating a 'victory' did not seem to have read the verdict in full. "If they had, they would realise what has actually happened to them."
PTI's Asad Umar noted that "not a single judge found Nawaz Sharif innocent."
"All five judges reject the false stories presented by Nawaz Sharif ... The two judges who decided that Nawaz Sharif stands disqualified are both future chief justices of the SC," he tweeted.
"The three other judges rejected the defence provided by Nawaz Sharif and ordered [an] investigation by a JIT."
The Panama Papers, which refer to a massive trove of secret documents leaked from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca — which specialised in helping the global elite stash wealth in offshore tax havens — had said that the PM's children, Maryam, Hasan and Hussain Nawaz "were owners or had the right to authorise transactions for several [offshore] companies".
At least eight offshore companies were found to have links to the Sharif family in the documents that were leaked.
The revelations had raised serious concerns regarding the legitimacy of the family's wealth, offshore holdings and business interests, and catalysed opposition parties to rally for the investigation or resignation of the prime minister and his family members.
Maryam Nawaz had initially dismissed the documents as a distortion of information, but the prime minister had to eventually relent and order a judicial probe into the allegations raised by opposition parties.
In a televised address, the premier also attempted to document his family's financial history and said he was open to a probe.
Legal action and court proceedings
What followed was a protracted tussle on who would lead the commission (the PTI had wanted the sitting chief justice, while the PML-N approached at least 5 ex-SC judges; each of them refused) and the terms of reference of the inquiry (which neither government nor opposition could come to terms on); a second televised address (in which the premier said he would resign if proven guilty); a landmark parliamentary speech (in which a sitting prime minister defended himself on the floor of the National Assembly); and mounting pressure from the Army and opposition parties, after which the case finally landed in front of the Supreme Court.
The case settled on Thursday had been initiated on January 4, 2017 under a reconstituted bench comprising the five judges mentioned earlier in the story after former Chief Justice Anwar Zaheer Jamali, who initially took up the case, retired midway into the proceedings and was succeeded by the incumbent.
The case reviewed four petitions filed by Advocate Tariq Asad, JI chief Sirajul Haq, PTI chairman Imran Khan and Awami Muslim League leader Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, who had petitioned the Supreme Court to disqualify Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for making misstatements in his speech in the National Assembly on May 16 and in his address to the nation on April 5 last year regarding investments made by his children in offshore companies that led to the purchase of four upscale flats in London.
After hearing the arguments from both sides, the bench had reserved its ruling on Feb 23 with the observation that their judgement would remain relevant and valid for at least 20 years.
The landmark judgement was made public 57 days after the case was last heard by the court. The federal capital was abuzz with excitement ahead of the pronouncement as the country waited for the historic verdict.
Islamabad's Red Zone, where the Supreme Court is located, had been on 'red alert', with around 1,500 police, Rangers and Frontier Constabulary personnel deployed in and around the area for security and to maintain peace. Police officials, including Special Branch officials, were deployed for intelligence gathering and timely responses.
Heavy contingents of security forces personnel had been deployed in and around the Red Zone. Strict checking was implemented at entry points into the Red Zone, where only concerned individuals, including government officials and residents of the area were being allowed entry.
Only individuals with passes were allowed onto court premises. Ordinarily, there are about 60 to 70 reporters at the apex court on a daily basis, but many more today turned out to witness the judges deliver the historic verdict.
PML-N and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) leaders had gathered outside the Supreme Court ahead of the announcement and made charged statements on their hopes for the outcome.
The prime minister himself followed the proceedings with his family and senior party officials from his residence.