LAHORE: The Lahore High Court on Wednesday granted bail to Leader of Opposition in Punjab Assembly Hamza Shehbaz 20 months after his arrest in the money-laundering reference.

Hamza had sought bail primarily on the ground of “inordinate delay” in conclusion of the trial proceedings after the Supreme Court denied him the relief with a direction to approach the high court with fresh grounds.

The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) had arrested him on June 11, 2019 while the reference was filed with a delay of over a year on Aug 20, 2020, said Hamza’s lead counsel Azam Nazir Tarar before a two-judge bench during the final hearing of the bail petition.

The counsel also posed a query before the bench as to who would be held responsible if the petitioner was acquitted after staying three years behind the bars. “Whereas if convicted, the petitioner would undergo his complete sentence,” he added.

He pointed out that the charges were framed on Nov 11, 2020 after a period of unconscionable delay of 17 months. He said the delay could not be attributed to the petitioner in any manner whatsoever.

Rejecting an allegation of the prosecution about delay on part of the defence, Mr Tarar said the defence sought adjournments in the trial only on the death of mother of Leader of Opposition in National Assembly Shehbaz Sharif, a principal accused in the reference, and the grandmother of the petitioner.

The counsel said progress in the trial was minimal as out of 110 prosecution witnesses only five had testified so for. He pointed out that a report filed by the trial court before the Supreme Court itself admitted that at least ten to 12-month time was required for conclusion of the trial proceedings.

Opposing the bail, NAB Prosecutor Faisal Raza Bokhari argued at length and said the ground of delay or hardship was not attracted in the case of the petitioner. He said the trial proceedings had been progressing smoothly. He accused the petitioner of using delaying tactics to delay the trial. He said the prosecution never sought an adjournment in the trial.

Discussing the merits of the case, the prosecutor said a huge amount of Rs7 billion was involved in the money- landing reference. He said there were many suspected transactions directly made in the bank accounts of the petitioner.

Mr Bokhari also tried to equate the case of Hamza with the conditions of Financial Action Task Force (FATF) saying the upcoming meetings of the international forum would be significant on the question of money laundering.

However, Justice Sardar Sarfraz Dogar, the head of the bench, rejected the equation made by the prosecution. Justice Asjad Javed Ghural was the other member of the bench.

The judge asked the prosecutor as to how long the NAB wanted to keep the petitioner behind the bars. “Five years would be enough for the investigation,” the judge asked the prosecutor in a lighter vein.

Mr Bokhari said the prosecution would have no objection if the trial court decided to hold day-to-day proceedings.

“Why petitioner was arrested earlier if the reference was to be filed after one year?” Justice Dogar expressed his surprise.

The bench allowed the post-arrest bail to Hamza and directed him to furnish bonds of Rs10 million.

The workers of the PML-N, gathered at the court, celebrated the bail granted to Hamza by chanting slogans and distributing sweets.

Hamza is likely to be released from jail on Thursday (today) as the process of furnishing bail bonds could not be completed due to the end of office hours. Previously, the LHC had dismissed the first petition of Hamza for post-arrest bail on Feb 11, 2020.

Hamza faces another reference of the NAB namely Ramzan Sugar Mills wherein he was already granted bail on Feb 6, 2020. PML-N President Shehbaz Sharif is yet to file his post-arrest bail petition in the reference of money laundering.

NAB:In a statement, the NAB said the post- arrest bail was granted to Hamza purely on the basis of hardship or delay in trial.

It said the defence took a plea that Hamza was arrested since 20 months, he was an abettor to principal accused, not principal accused himself. Further, the trial court on query of the Supreme Court, submitted its reply that trial of this case may take another 10 to 12 months.

At this, bail was granted and merit was not discussed at all, the bureau said, adding the court already dismissed bail on merit.

Published in Dawn, February 25th, 2021

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