ISLAMABAD: Former president and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) co-chairperson Asif Ali Zardari on Saturday got a clean chit in the sixth and final corruption reference against him, thanks to an apparently “friendly” and “weak” prosecution.
A Rawalpindi accountability court, on Aug 17, had reserved its judgement on a plea filed by the former president and announced the verdict nine days later. Mr Zardari had sought acquittal in a reference regarding his alleged illegal assets, in Pakistan and abroad.
Accountability courts have already acquitted Mr Zardari in five corruption cases since 2014: the SGS, Cotecna, Ursus Tractors, Polo Ground and ARY Gold references.
NAB took ‘lackadaisical’ approach to illegal assets reference; prosecutor failed to rebut Farooq Naek’s arguments
In the second week of August, the court started day-to-day proceedings in the final reference.
The application filed by Mr Zardari under section 265-K of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) claimed that the prosecution had produced weak and inadmissible evidence during the trial.
An accused usually moves an acquittal plea under section 265-K of the CrPC when he can convince the court that he may not be convicted on the basis of the prosecution evidence and continuing the trial would be a futile exercise.
However, in this case, this application was moved at a time when the trial was in its final stages, with the prosecution having so far produced 40 of 41 witnesses, and would have been completed in a couple of months.
Though Mr Zardari moved the application in January this year, proceedings were being conducted at a snail’s pace since his counsel Farooq H. Naek was unavailable, first due to other commitments and later due to an ailment.
But following the verdict in the Panama Papers case on July 28, progress in the matter accelerated and the court began conducting day-to-day proceedings with the consent of Mr Naek and the prosecution.
A source in the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) told Dawn that since their current chairman Qamar Zaman Chaudhry was due to retire on Oct 10, “stakeholders” wanted the case to be concluded before his retirement.
NAB has not appeared too enthusiastic in its pursuit of this high-profile corruption reference.
A lesser-known prosecutor, Sardar Tahir Ayub, who was appointed to NAB by the PPP government, was assigned to the case.
Surprisingly, Mr Zardari’s defence team — led by Farooq H. Naek — also included Sardar Zulqernain, a serving legal adviser with the Azad Jammu and Kashmir Accountability Bureau, along with other lawyers.
Mr Zulqernain has worked with Rawalpindi NAB as an additional deputy prosecutor general and is known as a close friend of the prosecutor, Tahir Ayub.
According to a senior NAB official, the prosecutor should have objected to the presence of Mr Zulqernain, since an official of the AJK Accountability Bureau could not appear as counsel for an accused.
When contacted, Mr Ayub admitted that he knew Mr Zulqernain was a serving AJK Accountability Bureau official, but said he did not think it appropriate to object to his presence.
During the course of his arguments, Mr Naek had questioned the admissibility of the evidence produced by the prosecution.
Mr Naek contended that the witnesses produced thus far were irrelevant, and that the evidence laid before the court did not meet the standards of the Qanoon-i-Shahadat (Law of Evidence).
According to him, Section 103 of the CrPC made it mandatory for the investigation officer to prepare a seizure memo for each and every recovery, along with the statement of at least two witnesses to that recovery.
But the prosecution, he contended, did not produce any such document on the record, which meant that the entire evidence was doubtful in the eyes of law and the benefit of doubt should go to the accused. He also pointed out that evidence based on photocopies was not admissible.
While Mr Naek took four days to complete his arguments on the admissibility of the evidence and authenticity of documents, the prosecutor only availed an hour to rebut his arguments on August 17.
Mr Ayub read out the statement of an approver related to the four sugar mills owned by Mr Zardari and told the court that the approver Ausaf Ali Agha had confessed to having set up these four sugar mills for Mr Zardari in the names of alleged frontmen.
But he did not rebut the arguments that raised serious doubts on the authenticity of the evidence.
The assets reference and five other cases against Mr Zardari were closed in 2007 under the controversial National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), a deal signed between retired Gen Pervez Musharraf and PPP chairperson Benazir Bhutto, which granted amnesty to politicians, political workers and bureaucrats in corruption cases.
However, in 2009 the Supreme Court declared NRO void ab initio and ordered the revival of the cases. By then, Mr Zardari had been sworn in as president, acquiring immunity under Article 248 of the Constitution. The assets reference was reopened by NAB in April 2015.
Published in Dawn, August 27th, 2017