PPP Co-Chairman Asif Ali Zardari was acquitted on Saturday by an accountability court in Rawalpindi in what was the final corruption reference still pending against him.
The case against the former president was based on a reference filed by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) during former president Pervez Musharraf's era for allegedly acquiring assets through illegal means in Pakistan and abroad.
The request for Zardari's acquittal, submitted by his counsel and PPP leader Farooq H. Naek, was accepted by Justice Khalid Mahmood Ranjha, who ruled that the reference lacked a legal basis.
"While Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif hide from NAB, my father Asif Ali Zardari's last pending case has just been acquitted [sic]. Faced 11+ years without a single conviction," Zardari's daughter, Bakhtawar, tweeted after the acquittal.
Zardari had previously been exempted from appearing in the case owing to security concerns.
The reference was filed before an accountability court in 2001, but was closed in 2007 under the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) issued by the government of retired Gen Pervez Musharraf.
However, the Supreme Court, in its verdict in the NRO case on December 2009, had ordered the revival of all cases closed under the ordinance. By then, however, Zardari had been sworn in as president and therefore enjoyed immunity under Article 248 of the Constitution.
Zardari has faced a total of six corruption references: apart from the assets reference, the former president was also implicated in the SGS, Cotecna, Polo Ground, Ursus Tractors and ARY Gold corruption references.
NAB re-opened these references once Zardari had completed his term office, but the former president had already been acquitted in five of the six references after a re-trial before the accountability court.
NAB re-opened the assets reference in April 2015, but the case had been proceeding at a snail’s pace. Early on, both the prosecution and defence counsels did not seem to want to pursue the case vigorously.
There had been no progress this year either, as Zardari’s counsel was unavailable either due to other commitments or ailments.
However, in the wake of the recent judgement in the Panama Papers case, Zardari’s counsel became available and the accountability court, with the consent of NAB, initiated daily hearings in the matter.
Courts generally opt for day-to-day proceedings with the consent of both the prosecution and the counsel for the accused.
Earlier this year, the prosecution had learnt that a star witness in the corruption reference had ‘mysteriously disappeared’.
The witness in question, Barrister Jawad Mirza, was then declared a proclaimed offender by the Rawalpindi accountability court.
Mirza was a legal consultant with NAB’s Financial Crime Investigation Wing (FCIW) in 2002, and had presented volumes of documentary evidence to the investigation officer. The evidence included documents related to money transactions, including details of bank accounts and offshore companies allegedly belonging to Zardari and his family.
Unless the consultant testifies before the court, takes ownership of the documents and authenticates them, they are neither deemed admissible nor treated as tangible evidence.