A WRONG decision has been officially denied and now reversed. Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif has already been sentenced and jailed by an accountability court in a trial that is continuing and must be completed in accordance with the law.
For the sake of transparency, fairness, the public’s right to information and the historical record, it is important that the full trial be conducted on normal court premises and with the media having full access. For reasons unknown, the caretaker federal cabinet appeared to cast doubt on the remainder of Mr Sharif’s trial being conducted in the venue used until now, a NAB court in Islamabad, and appeared to green-light a trial inside prison.
That highly unusual and wholly unnecessary decision, which the caretaker government has denied it had taken, has now been clarified: Mr Sharif’s NAB trial will continue in the same Islamabad court premises where it has been held until now.
Why is a continuing trial in open court necessary? Article 10-A of the Constitution guarantees the right to a fair trial to all individuals. The spokesperson of the caretaker federal cabinet has himself now stated that a fair trial can only be guaranteed in open court.
The charges against Mr Sharif and his family members are of a financial nature and have nothing to do with the very rare and very few exceptions in which a closed-door trial may be justified. Indeed, the very purpose of accountability is to publicly assemble proof of wrongdoing against public officials and punish them in a lawful, transparent manner so as to deter others from engaging in corruption.
The security argument is also not very convincing for an accountability trial inside jail. Certainly, the public and media interest in the trial of Mr Sharif could increase further after his initial conviction and jailing, but the NAB court premises in Islamabad can surely be secured against potential threats to the safety of the trial, the media and the public.
Partisan rancour aside, the NAB trial itself needs to be insulated against further unnecessary controversy. The PML-N has predictably denounced the verdict against Mr Sharif and his daughter, while opponents of the PML-N have, as was expected, hailed the sentencing and jailing of the two.
But independent legal analysts have raised serious questions about the judgement handed down in one of the three references against Mr Sharif. It is not clear why the judge who delivered that initial verdict has recused himself from the remainder of the trial, but the controversy and recusal have reinforced why the need to observe due process and deliver a judgement firmly rooted in existing law, precedent and a reasonable interpretation of the relevant statutes are so important.
The caretaker federal cabinet has made the right decision and it must be abided by until the conclusion of Mr Sharif’s trial.
Published in Dawn, July 20th, 2018