The Supreme Court on Thursday accepted for hearing the National Accountability Bureau's (NAB) plea challenging a Lahore High Court (LHC) decision to grant bail to Shahbaz Sharif and former principal secretary to the prime minister Fawad Hassan Fawad in the Ashiana Housing Scheme case.
A three-member bench led by Justice Azmat Saeed heard the appeal. Naeem Bukhari, the counsel for NAB, contended on the outset that the LHC's decision was in contradiction to principles governing the grant of bail as set by the apex court.
"There were no circumstances necessitating the grant of bail to Shahbaz Sharif," he argued.
During the hearing, Justice Ijazul Ahsan remarked that the LHC had not found sufficient grounds for the allegations against Sharif and believed that all contracts seem to have been granted by him on merit.
In response, Bukhari regretted that the LHC's decision "had been taken without due consideration of the facts of the case" and had impacted the case adversely.
He insisted that Sharif had been the "architect" of the Ashiana scandal and had conspired with Ahad Cheema, the then Lahore Development Authority director general, to award the project contract in contravention of the rules.
He also accused Sharif of cancelling the first successful bid for the contract and later intervening in the second bidding process.
"The first contract was cancelled in bad faith and the successful bidder had to be paid Rs6 million as a penalty," he recalled.
"Paragon was then awarded the contract for 2,000 kanals of land for Rs4 billion. Using government finances, the project was turned into a public private partnership," he further alleged. "This was all done to benefit Paragon."
"Two honourable judges of the Lahore High Court did not take these facts into account," he argued. "More than 6,000 affected persons are still waiting for the project to be completed."
He also pointed out that Fawad was also facing a case pertaining to assets beyond known sources of income .
"How can Sharif and Fawad be allowed outside, if Ahad is in jail?" he asked.
The court subsequently issued notices to Sharif and Fawad. The hearing of the case will resume on May 2.
On Oct 5, 2018, NAB had taken Shahbaz into custody in connection with the Ashiana Housing case. The former Punjab chief minister had been charged with misuse of authority by unlawfully assuming powers of the board of directors of the Punjab Land Development Company (PLDC), and awarding a contract to an ineligible proxy firm that resulted in the failure of the housing scheme. The scam caused a loss to the public exchequer and deprived 61,000 applicants of houses.
NAB had alleged that the former chief minister, through his allegedly unlawful acts and misuse of authority, caused a loss of Rs660 million to the exchequer.
On Feb 14, the LHC had accepted Shahbaz Sharif's request for bail in the Ashiana-i-Iqbal Housing Scheme and Ramzan Sugar Mills cases.
The same court had also granted bail to Fawad Hassan Fawad in the Ashiana Housing case.
Ashiana housing projects
The Punjab government's controversial Ashiana housing projects, launched in 2010, have been the subject of much controversy and speculation over the years.
Launched as low-cost housing schemes, the Ashiana projects were greeted with considerable enthusiasm when they launched.
Promising modest accommodation at knockdown prices, they attracted middle and lower-middle class investors desperate to secure shelter for their families as urban property prices increasingly went beyond the average citizen's reach.
However, completion hiccups and unexplained delays in balloting and allotment of completed units soon gave rise to accusations of irregularity, which culminated in 2018 with several high profile arrests.