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ISLAMABAD: The Islamabad High Court on Thursday admitted for regular hearing a petition filed by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif against a decision of the accountability court to hear final arguments in the Avenfield properties reference and issued notices to the National Accountability Bureau (NAB).

In a related development, the accountability court dismissed applications of Mr Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz seeking exemption from personal appearance from June 11 to 15 as they intended to visit ailing Kalsoom Nawaz in the United Kingdom.

Meanwhile, during the course of final arguments on Thursday, NAB prosecutor Sardar Muzaffar Abbasi conceded that Calibri font existed at the time when the trust deeds for offshore companies were prepared. However, he argued that the correspondence between Mossack Fonseca and Financial Investigation Agency of the British Virgin Islands itself rebutted the stance of the Sharif family on the trust deeds.

An IHC division bench comprising Justice Aamer Farooq and Justice Mohsin Akhtar Kayani took up the petition of Mr Sharif and after a preliminary hearing issued notices to the respondents and sought their comments. The petition cited over 80 orders of the trial court, IHC and Supreme Court as well as applications moved by the petitioner before the accountability court.

Khawaja Haris, the counsel for Mr Sharif, informed the IHC bench that soon after the accountability court had started the proceedings in three references — Avenfield properties, Al-Azizia/Hill Metal Establishment, Flagship Investment Co — against the Sharif family, they asked for the clubbing the references.

He said that on the initial application, the accountability judge wrote in his order that “in order to avoid conflicting judgements, or any likelihood of ignoring any defence that will be produced by the applicant/accused in each reference, all the three references shall be decided simultaneously”.

Likewise, Mr Haris argued, the IHC, while upholding the said judgement, also suggested that the testimony of common witnesses might be recorded simultaneously so that the defence could not be prejudiced. According to the counsel, the accountability court then conducted the proceedings in accordance with its own order or the guidelines set by the IHC.

Subsequently, the accountability court, after recording the statements of prosecution witnesses, summoned Panamagate Joint Investigation Team (JIT) head Wajid Zia for cross-examination in the Avenfield reference and was called again to testify in the Al-Azizia reference in April.

However, Mr Haris said, the prosecution moved an application saying they wanted to bring on record some additional documents and, instead of continuing with the testimony of Wajid Zia, brought NAB director general Zahir Shah into the witness box after which the investigation officer of the case was called. He said the prosecution then insisted on recording the statements of the accused under section 342 of the Criminal Procedure Code.

“At each stage, I strongly registered my protest and requested the trial court to conduct proceedings in accordance with its own set guidelines,” the counsel said, adding: “It was a surprise for us that accountability judge Mohammad Bashir at the request of the prosecution started hearing the final arguments.”

This, according to Mr Haris, will seriously damage the defence’s case as it will give an opportunity to the prosecution to improve its case when the defence counsel will argue at length.

He pointed out that the prosecution evidence in all the three references was the same — the JIT report, testimony of Wajid Zia, sale of Gulf Steels Mills, investment with the Qatari royal family and documentation related to the offshore companies.

The IHC bench will take up the case next week.

Exemption denied

Accountability judge Mohammad Bashir rejected the applications of Mr Sharif and his daughter seeking exemption from personal appearance because they wanted to meet the physician of Kalsoom Nawaz in the UK to discuss future course of action. They also attached a medical report of Begum Kalsoom with the application.

NAB’s additional deputy prosecutor general Muzaffar Abbasi opposed the exemption plea, saying the court was hearing final arguments and at this stage such application might not be allowed. He argued that as per media reports, the condition of Begum Kalsoom was improving.

Final arguments

During the final arguments, prosecutor Abbasi read out different portions of the JIT report. About the use of Calibri font in preparing the trust deeds, he said that although it was available to a handful people, including forensic expert Rober William Radley, it was not launched commercially until late 2007.

Since the trust deeds were written in February 2006, they could not be considered genuine, he argued. “They were not entitled to use Calibri font in the trust deeds and for which they may be charged separately.”

Mr Abbasi said Jeremy Freeman, one of the signatories of the trust deeds was given a questionnaire but he did not respond to all questions. Likewise, he said, the JIT relied on the expert opinion of UK’s solicitor Gilead Cooper which was procured by Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf chairman Imran Khan while discarding the opinion of Stephen Moverley Smith.

Imran Khan had directed Gilead Cooper to prepare a report on who might be the beneficial owner of Nielsen and Nescoll offshore companies — either Hussain or Maryam Nawaz.

Opinion of another UK-based law firm Stephen Moverley Smith was procured by Hussain, but the JIT did not rely on it as it was favorable to the Sharif family.

Mr Abbasi claimed that Maryam was beneficial owner of the London apartments since she was trustee of these properties and in case of demise of Hussain, she would become owner of the properties. He said the British Virgin Islands’ FIA confirmed that as per its correspondence with Mossack Fonseca, Maryam was the beneficial owner in 2012, which was sufficient to prove that the trust deeds prepared in 2006 regarding the ownership of London properties were fake.

The accountability court adjourned proceedings till Friday.

Published in Dawn, June 8th, 2018