A day of high judicial and political drama has ended on a note of great uncertainty. Only two facts are clear in the immediate hours after yesterday’s Supreme Court hearing: the JIT has submitted its report and the court will hold its next hearing on Monday.
However, from snippets of the JIT report that have been shared with the media, it does appear that the JIT has made a number of damaging observations about the legitimacy of the wealth of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his children.
Furthermore, the JIT appears to have recommended that the matter be turned over to the National Accountability Bureau for further proceedings. But the JIT has no legal power to enforce its own recommendations; it is the Supreme Court that will have to make a decision whether to turn the matter over to NAB or indeed whether Mr Sharif can be immediately disqualified.
The first thing that must be established is the fairness and reasonableness of the JIT report. The PTI and other opposition parties have automatically hailed the report while the PML-N has decried it, but those are partisan political assessments.
As the Supreme Court reviews the report and the report becomes available to the public, it will become apparent whether or not the JIT has scrupulously adhered to the task that was given to it by the court and produced a report that can pass independent, professional scrutiny. The controversies that the JIT mired itself in require the fairness and reasonableness of the report to be broadly established. It is therefore correct that the court decided to provide copies of the report to the parties in the Panama Papers case.
Next, the court must assess the choices before it. The goal must surely be to deliver a verdict that can stand the test of time, further the cause of accountability and act as a judicial precedent that can be readily used in future. There may be political pressure for short cuts, but a well-reasoned final judgement will have a lasting impact. Due process is the path to democratic substance in such matters.
Finally, the PML-N must be prepared to do the right thing for the sake of democracy. Prime Minister Sharif’s supporters may rightly argue that the PML-N’s majority in parliament is because of Mr Sharif, but the constitutional position is clear: the PML-N government can exist without Mr Sharif.
If the Supreme Court does rule that Mr Sharif must stand trial on corruption charges, a grave blow will have been struck against the legitimacy of Mr Sharif personally. At that point, it may become morally necessary and politically inevitable for the prime minister to step aside. It is Mr Sharif’s right to fight any legal charges against him to the very end, but neither he nor the PML-N should forget their responsibilities to the democratic order.
Published in Dawn, July 11th, 2017