AFTER the intense grilling of his sons, it is now Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s turn to appear before the joint investigation committee (JIT) that is probing the money trail of the Sharif family’s foreign assets. It will certainly be a significant event in this country for its top leader to take this test of accountability though one is not sure what the outcome of the landmark investigation will be.
What reinforces scepticism is the allegation of critical documents being tampered with by some government departments and what appears to be a systematic campaign to make the inquiry controversial. Provocative statements made by members of the ruling party seem to be part of the strategy to browbeat the members of the inquiry committee as well as the Supreme Court judges supervising the probe.
While Senator Nehal Hashmi’s warning to the investigators probing the money trail may have been too crude and explicit to ignore, the constant tirade of other PML-N leaders targeting the judiciary has been no less threatening. The judges’ indignation at such comments was apparent by the remarks made by Justice Azmat Saeed: “It is terrorists and the mafia who do such things.” He went on to liken the government to the ‘Sicilian Mafia’. To avoid any further political backlash, the party has expelled the senator, but no effort is being made to stop the other members from targeting the judiciary.
We may not be there yet, but the strident tenor of the PML-N leaders reminds one of the storming of the SC during the second Sharif government in 1997. Interestingly, it happened when the SC had summoned the same prime minister to appear in a contempt case. The issue brought to a head the confrontation between the then chief justice and the newly elected federal government.
I remember chatting with the late Ardeshir Cowasjee outside Court No. 1 when a mob led by some cabinet ministers breaking the security cordon entered the hall. I can never forget the appalling sight of senior judges scurrying for safety.
The strident tenor of the PML-N leaders brings back memories of the storming of the Supreme Court in 1997.
Mission accomplished, the leaders made a victory speech before exiting the building. It was certainly not a spontaneous outburst of anger by party loyalists for the alleged humiliation of their leader; it was a well-planned attack on the judiciary incited by the top leadership. It was, indeed, meant to destroy the independence of the judiciary.
It did not stop there; the Sharif government then plotted the removal of the overactive chief justice by dividing the SC judges. It is a long and sordid story. Most disconcerting was the role of some senior members of the judiciary in sweeping under the carpet that shocking incident that challenged the sanctity of the apex court.
The storming of the court was caused by the hubris of the second Sharif government that had returned to power with an absolute majority. The party’s control at the provincial level had further consolidated its political hold. A weak opposition could hardly present any resistance to the juggernaut. The attack on the SC removed whatever checks there were on the executive power thus bringing Sharif closer to achieving his ambition of becoming the all-powerful ‘amirul momineen’. However, the 1999 military coup prevented his dream from coming true.
Indeed, it will not be easy for the third Sharif government to repeat the 1997 episode, but the intimidation campaign launched by members of the ruling party can be compared to the 1997 storming of the court. The objective is the same: to stop the court from proceeding against the country’s most powerful ruling family. The likening of the Sharif government to a ‘Sicilian Mafia’ might appear overly critical but the riotous ways of the government are disgraceful.
Undoubtedly, some objection on the composition of the JIT, particularly the inclusion of the military intelligence agencies, may be valid, but it must not be used as an excuse to obstruct the investigation.
Some of the opposition parties too, especially the PTI, have contributed to making the JIT controversial and putting pressure on the SC. The daily theatrics outside the court with both the government and the opposition abusing each other are utterly disgraceful. This ongoing political gamesmanship and the alleged non-cooperation of some government departments have made the task of the investigators extremely difficult.
Indeed, it is the responsibility of the apex court to ensure that this extremely important investigation into the Panamagate scandal is not hampered by all those obstacles. It is surely not easy to satisfy all sides. But a fair and impartial probe will certainly help strengthen the process of accountability in this country.
It may be true that the Panama Papers scandal has brought matters into the open, but the allegations of the Sharif family owning expensive real estate in London are not new. The issue first came to the surface some two decades ago following an FIA investigation report that provided details about the ownership of the Mayfair apartments.
In his confessional statement, while in detention during Pervez Musharraf’s military government, Ishaq Dar had allegedly provided critical information about the money transfer. Although the finance minister has claimed that the statement was extracted under duress, there is still need for an investigation into the heart of the matter. The only way to bring out the truth is an impartial inquiry into the scandal that continues to cast a huge shadow over the credibility of the entire political system.
Surely the JIT is not the best option, but given the inability of our investigative agencies to take on those in power, the apex court has been left with no choice. The prime minister appearing before the JIT will not weaken but strengthen the democratic process in the country. It remains to be seen how the ruling party behaves when the prime minister appears before the JIT on Thursday. The overzealous PML-N leaders and supporters must learn a lesson from the shameful storming of the SC and refrain from using any thuggish tactic to obstruct the investigation.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, June 14th, 2017