LAHORE: In its detailed verdict on the post-arrest bail petition of Leader of Opposition in National Assembly Shehbaz Sharif in a money laundering reference, a Lahore High Court full bench has observed that the former chief minister of Punjab faces no allegation of receiving kickbacks or having ill-gotten money.
“Interestingly, the NAB has categorically admitted before us that petitioner is not alleged to have received any kickbacks or any such ill-gotten money in return to a favour extended to someone to build up the assets in the name of his family,” states the verdict issued by the bench comprising Justice Ali Baqar Najafi, Justice Aalia Neelum and Justice Syed Shahbaz Ali Rizvi.
The bench had granted bail to Shehbaz on April 22 last through a short order and he was released from the jail after furnishing bail bonds.
The LHC chief justice had constituted the three-judge full bench to decide the bail of Shehbaz after a division bench gave a split decision. Justice Sardar Muhammad Sarfraz Dogar, the head of the division bench, had allowed the bail, while its other member Justice Asjad Javed Ghural dismissed the same.
The 28-page detailed verdict released by the full bench, discussing the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) allegations of amassing benami properties through fictitious telegraphic transfers (FTTS), notes that no investigation was conducted to dig out the source of income of the petitioner.
It observes that the NAB also alleged certain amounts were given in the PML-N funds by the party’s supporters, which were utilised for the personal benefit of Shehbaz. “Had it been the case, it would have become a dispute, at the most, between two individuals or a matter to be considered by the Election Commission of Pakistan for collecting party funds from certain undesirable persons by suggesting a money trail,” says the verdict.
The judges observe, “We are afraid that halfhearted attempt by the NAB will not absolve them of their responsibility to prove the case against the petitioner as the presumption of innocence always lies in favour of the accused person and the onus shifts only after initial discharge of burden by the prosecution.”
To explain the charge of benami transactions, the bench refers to a 2017 judgement of the Supreme Court in case of retired Brig Imtiaz Ahmed, wherein the prosecution produced income tax and wealth tax documents of the accused (therein) but failed to find his any other source of income and the ingredients of benami transaction of his wife could not be established.
“Hence, it is now law that transaction in the income tax returns carries the presumption of truthfulness,” it remarks.
The bench also relies upon a case of Abdul Aleem Khan of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf was decided in 2019 wherein the bail was granted by the LHC on the ground that the properties were declared in the income tax returns.
It notes that even the judge (Justice Ghural), developing a difference of opinion in the present case, has already granted bail in another case titled “Mazhar Hussain Asif versus National Accountability Bureau”, while referring to the source of money declared in the tax returns. Rejecting another NAB allegation that the family members of Shehbaz are his dependents, the bench refers to the Supreme Court’s judgement in Panama Papers case and observes that living together is not a proof of dependability.
“It further rules that in the absence of any property purchased or owned in the personal name of the petitioner and in the absence of direct proof that his family members were his dependents or vice versa and in the absence of direct proof that the money came through FTTs in his account as some crime proceed or money laundering, we cannot accept the prosecution case as a gospel truth,” observe the judges.
The bench subscribed an argument of the prosecution about the high moral grounds for the public office holders. However, it observes, “At times, we are also guided and supported by the principles of morality but when it comes to the question of liberty of an individual, we are bound to take into account the basic principles under which the bail can be granted or refused.”
The judges’ remark that they cannot, however, “keep our eyes closed on the principles for the grant of post-arrest bail which is whether the case of the petitioner calls for further inquiry into his guilt.
The full bench, which acted as a referee bench, has endorsed the view of Justice Ghural regarding dismissal of Shehbaz’s bail on the grounds of his medical condition and unconscionable delay in the trial proceedings.
However, the three judges agreed with Justice Dogar of the previous division bench and allowed the bail of Shehbaz on merits.
REACTION: PML-N information secretary Marriyum Aurangzeb on Saturday dared Prime Minister Imran Khan, his aide Shehzad Akbar, and all government spokespersons to hold a press conference and read out the detailed decision released by the LHC in Shehbaz’s bail.
She said the decision was not only a slap on the government’s “false” corruption accusations, but had also buried Imran Khan’s “fake narrative” forever.
She was talking to the media outside the FIA offices.
Published in Dawn, May 9th, 2021