The Islamabad High Court has suspended the prison sentences handed to former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, his daughter Maryam Nawaz and son-in-law Mohammad Safdar in the Avenfield corruption reference.
An IHC division bench comprising Justice Athar Minallah and Justice Miangul Hassan Aurangzeb was hearing the appeals by the Sharifs and Capt Safdar against the verdict announced by the accountability court on July 6.
The judges accepted the convicts' petitions against the Avenfield verdict, ruling that the sentences would remain suspended until the final judgement on their appeals.
Here's what analysts have to say on today's court decision.
—Arifa Noor, analyst
I think there are a lot of people who were hopeful about this verdict but it’s hard to try and predict what may happen next. I don’t think one should try to predict.
However, there was a semblance of what might happen based on the judges’ comments and questions, especially regarding NAB, which made it seem that there may be a favourable result or verdict for the Sharifs.
This is just something interim. There are three references in court; the trial court convicted them in one reference, which was appealed against. That appeal has yet to be heard.
It is a far bigger positive for Maryam than for Nawaz, who has been disqualified for life and that disqualification is not under discussion, whereas for Maryam, this was the only thing against her, at least in this particular reference.
The relief for Maryam is also greater as this suspension will provide more space for her to maneuver and continue her political career — which she was already doing from jail, but now can do it openly. If her conviction is overturned, only then can she fully return to politics.
As for the PTI, they are in government and the decision lies in court. The elections are over and they have a lot more to deal with now that they are in government.
But there is no logic for the PML-N to take out rallies like last year’s at GT Road in the near future; at the moment they’re going to mourn Kulsoom’s death.
—Ali Chughtai, lawyer
The suspension of sentence is only a concession granted to an accused under Section 426 of the Criminal Procedure Code and does not mean that the conviction is erased or suspended.
An Appellate Court (e.g., IHC) is competent to suspend a sentence and enlarge the accused on bail pending hearing if strong grounds appear to show that a conviction is not liable to be sustained.
In this instance, the IHC may have suspended the sentence based (in part) on the notion that the prosecution's case primarily relied on a mountain of circumstantial/secondary evidence to connect the Sharifs, instead of primary evidence.
An Appellate Court, on tentative assessment of available evidence, can find reasonable grounds of innocence and/or irregularity in a trial court judgment.
Since the IHC has only conducted a tentative view of the evidence, it is highly possible that the conviction may be sustained in the main appeal, which will proceed regardless and independent of any opinion given by the Court while hearing the application for the suspension of sentence.
The IHC is, however, required to record the reasons for the suspension of the sentence. Where a High Court does not assign reasoning to an order, such order cannot be deemed a speaking one, and the apex Court in its constitutional duty to impart complete justice, is not inhibited by any restrain to set aside such an order.
Simply put, the IHC's discretion in this instance may be challenged where lawful justification exists, and NAB may exercise this option by an appeal before the Honourable Supreme Court of Pakistan.
—Owais Tohid, senior journalist/analyst
For the Sharifs and their followers, it's a moral and political victory. It will serve as oxygen for the fatigued and battered political souls of Sharifs' political dynasty.
It will strengthen their political narrative that the cases were a trap, a conspiracy hatched by the powerful establishment.
The suspension of sentence against Nawaz and his daughter Maryam, to me, is a temporary relief as both still have to face cases, so the legal sword will continue to hang on their heads.
The decision, however, will have impact not only on the Sharifs' politics, but also on the country’s politics.
While it’s going to give Sharifs’ supporters something to cheer about, the party leaders, however, will be hoping to rebuild the crumbling political castle.
Once Nawaz Sharif and Maryam are out of jail, the party will not be headless, as Shahbaz Sharif miserably failed to fill the gap in their absence.
To give a real headache to Khan and his PTI, the Sharifs need Bhutto’s party on their side, which seems difficult but if Nawaz Sharif remains on surface for longer it’s not impossible.
The decision might be a setback for PTI, but if Maryam gets acquitted in the Avenfield case then we will witness a reincarnation of PML-N, the party which doesn’t have a history of resistance.
With Nawaz Sharif’s parliamentary political career over, the future of the Sharifs’ politics lies with Maryam, who has been pushing an anti-establishment narrative.
The Sharifs’ politics is currently on a rollercoaster ride reflecting the country’s political history with civil-military battles.
We might witness further confrontation and resistance.