PML-N President Shehbaz Sharif on Thursday announced that he has filed a formal defamation suit against Mail on Sunday newspaper, Mail Online and journalist David Rose in the London High Court for the publication of a "gravely defamatory" story in 2019.
The story published in July 2019 claimed that Shehbaz, the former chief minister of Punjab, had embezzled funds provided by UK's Department for International Development (DFID) for the rehabilitation of the 2005 earthquake victims. It quoted Assets Recovery Unit Chief Shahzad Akbar and a few other individuals — none of whom were in an official position.
The story was quickly refuted by the PML-N and the party had insisted that it was published "on the behest of [Prime Minister] Imran Khan". It was also rejected by DFID, which said the body's "robust systems protected UK taxpayers from fraud". At the time, Shehbaz had also sent a legal notice to Rose and the two publications against the "gravely defamatory" article.
In a press conference at the offices of British law firm Carter-Ruck in London, Shehbaz said that as his legal notice to The Mail on Sunday and online news site Mail Online and Rose was not fruitful and "a copy of the article is still available online", he has decided to sue the news agency and the journalist.
Alasdair Pepper and Antonia Foster, Shehbaz's legal counsel in the case, were also present at the press conference.
Pepper said that the defamation suit has been initiated and the London High Court is expected to take the matter up any time within this year.
He said that the article as well as the "social media campaign [against Shehbaz] launched by Rose was highly defamatory".
A statement by the law firm said that Shehbaz, "as a leading politician and public figure in Pakistan", intends to clear his name. "He seeks the withdrawal of the allegations and an unreserved and unambiguous apology from the Mail's publisher," said the statement.
Speaking at the press conference, Shehbaz said that had there been any concrete evidence against him, "Imran Khan would not have started the frivolous proceedings in Ashiana Housing Scheme against me, he would have filed a case on this matter. The Lahore High Court's acceptance of my bail plea is proof that the Ashiana case does not hold any merit".
Shehbaz in December last year left Pakistan to accompany his brother, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, to London for a medical visit after the latter was diagnosed with an immune system disorder. He has been on bail since February 2018. He is facing cases of corruption in the Ashiana-i-Iqbal Housing Scheme and Ramzan Sugar Mills projects.
"This article is politically motivated and has been written on Imran Niazi's behest," Shehbaz reiterated at the press conference. "He asked for this article to be written because no real proof exists in this matter. Had there been any proof, he would have filed a case on this matter in Pakistan.
"It is sad that Niazi does not realise that such actions are defaming Pakistan. He is not thinking of the country while going after me."
Alleged involvement of Shehbaz's family
The article, 'Did the family of UK aid’s poster boy steal taxpayers’ cash meant for earthquake victims?', quoted Shahbaz’s son Suleman as denying the allegations against him and his family, saying they were the product of a ‘political witch-hunt’ ordered by Prime Minister Imran Khan. "No allegation has been proven. There is no evidence of kickbacks," he is quoted as saying in the report.
According to the writer, The Mail was given "exclusive access" to some of the results of a high-level probe ordered by Prime Minister Imran.
"We were also able to interview key witnesses held on remand in jail, including a UK citizen Aftab Mehmood. He claims he laundered millions on behalf of Shahbaz’s family from a nondescript office in Birmingham – without attracting suspicion from Britain’s financial regulators, who inspected his books regularly," said the report.