Originally published in Dawn, April 21st, 2017
• Verdict in Panama Papers case orders formation of JIT to investigate PM’s and family’s assets for irregularities
• Justices Khosa and Gulzar dissent, say PM no longer sadiq and ameen
• Special bench to monitor probe, give directions on PM’s disqualification
• FIA-led JIT will comprise ISI, MI, NAB, SECP and SBP officials
ISLAMABAD: In a verdict that may change the course of Pakistan’s political history, the Supreme Court on Thursday ordered a sitting prime minister and his children to face further investigation by a specially constituted six-man joint investigation team (JIT).
The verdict was the culmination of months of hearings into Panama Papers case, the scandal that rocked the world in April 2016 with revelations about the murky wheelings and dealings of some of the world’s most powerful people.
On Thursday, the entire country was glued to TV screens as news channels counted down the minutes until the announcement of one of the most eagerly anticipated decisions in the country’s legal history.
The majority 3-2 judgement stipulates that the JIT will include members from both premier military intelligence agencies and will investigate whether the prime minister and his family members had amassed wealth beyond their known sources of income.
As a result of the majority verdict, Nawaz Sharif will remain the prime minister for now, but will have to face a thorough investigation by the JIT on the issue of money trail in what can be a long-drawn process.
Though Justice Asif Saeed Khosa headed the five-judge Supreme Court bench that heard the petitions by Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf chief Imran Khan, Jamaat-i-Islami emir Sirajul Haq and Awami Muslim League leader Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, his anxiously awaited opinion was in the minority, along with Justice Gulzar Ahmed.
Both the dissenting judges are set to become chief justices following the retirement of incumbent Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar after two years.
The main judgement was authored by Justice Ejaz Afzal, with additional notes from Justice Sheikh Azmat Saeed and Justice Ijaz-ul-Ahsan.
Justice Khosa, who announced the 548-page judgement to a capacity crowd in Courtroom No. 1, went a step further in his dissent, declaring that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif should be disqualified for not being honest before the nation, parliament and court.
He also called for directions to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to immediately de-notify the prime minister, an opinion echoed by Justice Gulzar Ahmed.
The remarks prompted applause from PTI supporters inside the otherwise sombre confines of Courtroom No. 1, causing the bench to ask them to remain “quiet”.
Before making the announcement, Justice Khosa thanked all parties involved for showing grace and respecting the dignity of the court during the proceedings.
Every aspect looked into
He explained how the judges dealt with each and every issue raised before them and requested the parties to only comment on the judgement after reading it thoroughly.
Soon after the announcement, supporters of both PML-N and PTI left the courtroom in a celebratory mood, with each side claiming they had been vindicated. Both parties even distributed sweets that were specially brought in large boxes into the heavily-guarded Supreme Court building, which was guarded by a visible police cordon.
Leaders such as Imran Khan, Sheikh Rashid and others, who used to hold forth from the Supreme Court media dais after Panama Papers case hearings, left the venue relatively quickly on Thursday, no doubt in a hurry to read the judgement before commenting on it.
“The judgement has deeply wounded the prime minister,” a lawyer commented soon after the verdict was announced.
But Supreme Court Bar Association president Rasheed A. Razvi said the prime minister had lost “on moral grounds and should immediately step down” since two judges had held that he was not sadiq and ameen, nor had they accepted the defence and money trail presented to the court by the prime minister and his family.
The judgement also framed questions that can also be seen as the terms of reference (TOR) for the JIT to inquire into. These include: how did Gulf Steel Mills, UAE, come into being; what factors/events led to its sale; what happened to its liabilities; where did its sale proceeds end up; how did they reach Jeddah, Qatar and the UK; whether Hussain Nawaz and Hassan Nawaz had the means in the early 1990s to possess and purchase four upscale flats in London; and, whether the letters from Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jaber Al-Thani were a myth or a reality.
The judgement also inquired how the bearer shares crystallised into the four London flats; who is the real and beneficial owner of Nielsen and Nescoll; how did Hill Metal Establishment come into existence and whether the prime minister owns any shares in his son’s company; where did the money for Flagship Investments Limited and other companies set up or taken over by Hassan Nawaz come from; where did the working capital for such companies come from; and, where did the huge sums gifted by Hussain Nawaz to the prime minister come from.
These questions, the judgement said, go to the heart of the matter and need to be answered.
Joint investigation team
To answer all these questions, the court said, a thorough investigation was required. In normal circumstances, such an exercise should be conducted by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB). But since NAB Chairman Qamar Zaman Chaudhry appeared indifferent and even unwilling to do his part, the verdict said, the court was constrained to look elsewhere.
The JIT will be headed by a senior officer of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) not below the rank of additional director general.
Other members of the JIT will include a NAB representative, a nominee of the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan (SECP), a nominee of the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP), a seasoned officer each from the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Military Intelligence (MI), nominated by their respective directors general.
The judgement requires that the nominees for the JIT be placed before the judges within a week for nomination and approval.
The JIT will investigate and collect evidence, if any, showing that the prime minister or any of his dependents or benamidars owns, possesses or has acquired assets or any interest disproportionate to his/her known means of income.
The prime minister and his two sons have been asked to appear and associate themselves with the JIT as and when required. The team may also examine evidence and material, if any, already available with FIA and NAB relating to the possession or acquisition of the London flats, or any other assets or pecuniary resources and their origins.
The team will submit periodical reports every two weeks to a Supreme Court bench, to be constituted by the chief justice, to ensure the implementation of the judgement and the JIT will complete its investigation and submit a final report before the special bench within 60 days.
The bench will then pass appropriate orders, in exercise of its powers under Articles 184(3), 187(2) and 190 of the Constitution, including an order to file a reference against the prime minister and any other person related to a crime, if justified on the basis of the material brought on the record.
The bench will also then determine the question of the prime minister’s disqualification and, if necessary, pass an appropriate order to summon and examine prime minister.
On the significance of including intelligence agencies in JIT, Salman Akram Raja – who represented the prime minister’s sons – said this was not symbolic, since the JIT’s findings would be finalized by a competent court of law. But advocate Chaudhry Faisal Hussain told Dawn that the presence of intelligence officials would help ensure the independence of the JIT by reducing chances of ‘executive influence’.
Mood in the capital
If one believed what was on TV, all of Islamabad was paralysed ahead of the landmark judgement. But apart from a tangible buzz and excitement about the possible outcomes of the Panamagate case, life in the capital went on as normal.
In cafes, restaurants and roadside diners everywhere, TVs were tuned to news channels and all eyes remained transfixed on tickers as they revealed the content of the court’s findings.
There was also none of the gridlock that had become a norm when former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gillani used to go to court during hearings of the reference against him.
Sessions of the National Assembly and Senate remained largely unaffected by the excitement next door, and work at the Pakistan Secretariat and other government offices in the area was also unaffected.
Change was also, quite literally, in the air as the oppressive heat of the afternoon sun gave way to cloudy weather later in the evening. Whether those clouds were the heralds of a political storm or a sign of relief from the heat of the court case, however, is anyone’s guess.
Published in Dawn, April 21st, 2017