The Islamabad High Court (IHC) said on Tuesday that it was giving former prime minister Nawaz Sharif a chance "to surrender" and appear before the court at the next hearing scheduled for September 10.
An IHC division bench comprising Justice Aamer Farooq and Justice Mohsin Akhtar Kayani was hearing the appeals of Nawaz Sharif, his daughter Maryam and her husband, Safdar, against their convictions in the Avenfield reference.
The bench also heard an appeal filed by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) against Nawaz's acquittal in the Flagship reference as well as appeals against his conviction in the Al-Azizia reference.
During today's hearing, Justice Farooq said that the court was not declaring Nawaz an absconder and was giving him "one more chance to surrender". "We are not taking a final decision as yet."
However, Nawaz's counsel, Khawaja Haris Ahmed, argued that by asking Nawaz to appear in person, the court had decided that the former prime minister had to return to the country. Ahmed maintained Nawaz could not return to the country due to the coronavirus pandemic.
"Do you fear that Nawaz will be arrested at the airport?" asked Justice Kayani. "If that is the case, please inform the court." To this, the lawyer replied he would do so if they feared such an occurrence.
Nawaz's counsel argued that his client's bail had been approved after his sentence in the Avenfield reference was suspended, adding that Nawaz had also been granted conditional bail in the Al-Azizia reference.
But at the same time, the counsel acknowledged that the ex-PM was currently not abroad on bail.
"His current status is that he is not out on bail. This is the legal position," Ahmed said, adding that the PML-N supremo was seeking medical treatment abroad.
He added that Nawaz's medical reports were forwarded to the authorities concerned but the Punjab government had rejected an application seeking an extension in his bail. The court then questioned whether Nawaz had challenged the order issued by the Punjab government to which his lawyer replied in the negative.
"He has not [challenged the Punjab government order] because he [Nawaz] is not in the country."
The court inquired whether Nawaz was currently under treatment at a hospital. "No he is not under treatment at a hospital. But he will return to the country once his treatment is complete," his lawyer replied.
The bench asked Nawaz's lawyer to satisfy the court that the PML-N supremo had not absconded. "The appeal can only move forward when Nawaz appears before the court," said Justice Kayani.
His lawyer maintained that Nawaz's fresh medical reports had been received which would be provided once they had been verified by the Foreign Office, adding that he had submitted one medical certificate to the court and would submit another.
During the hearing, the court observed that absconding from a court hearing or during a trial was also a crime. "We are not declaring Nawaz an absconder at the moment. But how can the appeal be heard in his absence?" Justice Farooq questioned.
Justice Farooq asked what the status of the appeal would be if the court declared Nawaz an absconder. To this, Ahmed replied that if the former prime minister does not appear "on purpose", the court could declare him an absconder.
During the hearing, the NAB prosecutor said Nawaz was a fugitive as he was not appearing for court proceedings "on purpose".
"Can Nawaz pursue the appeal through a representative?" asked Justice Farooq. "If he absconds, the court can appoint a representative," the prosecutor replied.
The former prime minister, who was serving a seven-year jail term following his conviction in the Al-Azizia reference, was last year allowed to leave for London on bail for medical reasons after he was diagnosed with an immune system disorder.
Last month, Adviser to the Prime Minster on Accountability and Interior Shahzad Akbar said Nawaz's four-week bail on medical grounds expired in December last year and the government had already approached the UK government for his extradition.
The bench also expressed displeasure at the large crowd that had gathered outside the court premises, apparently in support of Maryam, the former PM's daughter, who also appeared in court today.
"If the coronavirus spreads, who will be held responsible? We have to take some precautions ourselves."
Maryam, Safdar appear before IHC
Earlier today, PML-N Vice President Maryam Nawaz and her husband, retired captain Mohammad Safdar, appeared before the court.
Maryam travelled to Islamabad from Murree and was welcomed by hundreds of party workers and supporters, who shouted slogans and showered her with rose petals, when she reached Bhara Kahu.
Several PML-N leaders also accompanied Maryam to the high court including party leaders Pervaiz Rashid and Shahid Khaqan Abbasi.
Speaking to the media before the hearing, Maryam said that only the All Parties Conference (APC) will reveal whether the PPP was with the PML-N or not, adding that the latter will "definitely" attend it.
"Opposition parties should work together to take action against the government," she said.
She also commented on Nawaz's health. "No one would want to stay away from the country at this age. [Nawaz's] treatment is ongoing but was delayed due to the coronavirus."
She added that she wanted her father to complete his medical treatment and not come back to Pakistan. "[But] knowing his condition, I can say with certainty he will not stay away from Pakistan."
A large number of police officials were deployed to ensure security at the high court. According to Islamabad police, 560 officials, three DSPs and nine inspectors were deputed.
Only lawyers and media representatives were allowed to enter the court premises.
References against the Sharifs
All three references — the Avenfield reference, the Flagship reference and the Al-Azizia reference — are offshoots of the Panama Papers leak case relating to 785,000 offshore companies. The PTI, Jamaat-i-Islami and Minister for Railways Sheikh Rashid Ahmed had brought the matter before the Supreme Court.
The apex court had disqualified Nawaz Sharif as prime minister and directed NAB to file three references against the Sharif family and one against then finance minister Ishaq Dar in the accountability court.
Accountability court judge Mohammad Bashir had on July 6, 2018 convicted Nawaz, Maryam and Capt Safdar in the Avenfield reference while they were in the United Kingdom taking care of ailing Kulsoom Nawaz, handing the former prime minister 10 years as jail time for owning assets beyond known income and one year for not cooperating with the bureau.
Maryam was given seven years for abetment after she was found "instrumental in concealment of the properties of her father" and one year for non-cooperation with the bureau.
Her husband was given one year jail time — for not cooperating with NAB, and aiding and abetting Nawaz and Maryam.
Following the conviction, the Sharif family members returned to Pakistan and were imprisoned. However, all three were released from Adiala jail in September after the IHC had suspended their respective prison sentences in the Avenfield corruption reference.