FORMER prime minister Nawaz Sharif is expected to fly out of the country for his medical treatment on Tuesday after the Lahore High Court gave him permission to travel without providing any indemnity bond to the government.

The PML-N has celebrated the court’s decision as a vindication of their leader’s refusal to sign any such bond as demanded by the government. However, the court has extracted a signed undertaking from Shahbaz Sharif and Nawaz Sharif that the latter will return within the stipulated time of four weeks. This time is extendable only if the former prime minister can prove through his medical reports that his treatment requires him to stay abroad for longer. The undertaking by Shahbaz Sharif also says categorically that if at any time the government has credible information that Nawaz Sharif is “living abroad despite his fitness to travel”, a government representative will have the right to verify the state of his health from his doctor. On the face of it then, the matter seems to be settled for now.

There are, however, some complications.

According to the attorney general of Pakistan, the court has issued an interim order, which means that the final judgement on the issue is still awaited. While the court has suspended the requirement of the indemnity bond, it has admitted the petition for hearing in the third week of January. The court has specified that it intends to probe the matter in the light of five key questions that it has written in the interim order. These questions will help the court determine if the federal government can add conditions to the Exit Control List and whether a convict can be included in or excluded from the list. The final judgement, when it is delivered, will clarify the grey areas in the execution of the ECL that have emerged during this current situation.

For now, however, the government’s attempt at blocking Mr Sharif’s travel abroad has come undone.

Government spokespeople are attempting to paint the decision favourably but the fact is that the government tried to pull a fast on Nawaz Sharif and fell short. PTI officials may justify their actions in partisan realpolitik terms but it is obvious that the indemnity bond issue was an ill-thought afterthought that has done nothing except leaving its architects red-faced. The cabinet will now decide if it wants to challenge the Lahore High Court order but the reality is that Nawaz Sharif has got what he wanted and the government has not. Mr Sharif should now get the best treatment he can and ensure that he follows the court order regarding his return in letter and spirit. The system has trusted him. He should return this trust in full.

Published in Dawn, November 18th, 2019

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