A special court in Lahore extended on Saturday the interim bail of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and his son Punjab Chief Minister Hamza Shehbaz until May 28 in the hearing of a Rs16 billion money laundering case against them.
However, presiding judge of the Special Court (Central-I), Ijaz Hassan Awan, issued arrest warrants for Suleman Shahbaz, Tahir Naqvi and Malik Maqsood in the case, as they were not present. The hearing was subsequently adjourned until May 28.
Shehbaz and Hamza were set to be indicted in the case in the previous hearing on May 14 but it was delayed because the prime minister was in the UK and postponed his return to the country in order to visit the UAE to offer condolences over the death of its president.
At the outset of the hearing, Judge Awan observed that conditions outside the court were "not good", referring to security personnel obstructing the entry of people onto the court premises. PM Shehbaz responded that he would look into the matter.
The judge also expressed anger at the SP Civil Lines for stopping judges' vehicles from entering the court.
Meanwhile, Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) prosecutor Farooq Bajwa contended that three of the suspects in the case were absconders and an application had been submitted for action against them.
He requested the court to indict all of the suspects at the same time.
The judge observed that action had been taken against the absconders by a magistrate court.
However, the FIA prosecutor argued that proceedings to declare the three suspects as absconders should be completed, adding that if the case continued in this way, it would benefit them.
Meanwhile, Shehbaz and Hamza's counsel, Mohammad Amjad Pervaiz, said that charges were filed against his clients between 2008 and 2018 and the prosecution team had removed many of them in the challan.
"It was said that matters were handled through fake companies and transactions of Rs2 billion were done through one account. Many of the charges filed by the previous investigation team were not included in the new challan," he told the court.
"There is a world of difference between the FIR and the challan."
He added that the entire investigation against Shehbaz was conducted by the former adviser on accountability.
Shehbaz addresses court
Shehbaz, while speaking in the court, said that the United Kingdom's National Crime Agency (NCA) had conducted an investigation for nearly two years but could not find "even one rupee of corruption" against him.
The prime minister said he had lived in the UK and acknowledged to have done business there, but maintained that the cases against him were "political".
At this point, Judge Awan said he had issued an order to declare Shehbaz an absconder.
For his part, Shehbaz's counsel argued that the court had issued orders for declaring those people absconders whose names had been highlighted in red in the FIA's challan.
The FIA prosecutor said the suspects could take advantage of any legal loophole at which the judge asked why the prosecution had remained silent for four months.
Prosecutor Bajwa responded by requesting the court to begin action against the absconders mentioned in the challan.
Subsequently, the court reserved its decision on declaring Shehbaz's son Suleman an absconder.
When Shehbaz again took the stand, he told the court he had served as the chief minister for 10 years but had never drawn a salary. "My salary would be Rs10 million but I did not take it. I also went on official tours using my own money. I used to get the government car refuelled from my own pocket.
"I saved the nation billions of rupees."
The premier's counsel argued that the 14 accounts mentioned by the FIA were through banking channels. "Baseless propaganda was done in this case for 1.5 years. The suspects tolerated insults despite lack of evidence.
"It seems the FIA is inspired by [streaming platform] Netflix. This is a film-inspired FIR," he argued.
Shehbaz was given a questionnaire and investigated by the FIA while he was in jail in December 18, 2020, he continued. The FIA had remained "completely silent" about the case from January 8, 2021 to June 2021, he said.
The Lahore High Court (LHC) had granted the PML-N president bail on merit in the money laundering and assets beyond means cases, Pervaiz said.
The FIA then sent a notice to Shehbaz on June 15 when the budget was about to be presented, he added.
"Shehbaz Sharif and Hamza Shehbaz believe in the rule of law. They are prime minister and chief minister, respectively, but they still appeared in the court."
There were several issues in the case, including which court could hear the trial and under which law was the crime committed, he argued.
The decision to extend bail would be in accordance with Supreme Court judgements, Pervaiz.
When the court asked for bail arguments to be completed, the FIA prosecutor said it could not be done today and pointed out that the investigation officer was also not present.
Pervaiz requested the court to allow the suspects to leave, saying he would present the arguments. "Even if we hold daily hearings, the arguments cannot be completed within a week."
He noted that other suspects were also nominated in the case and their lawyers would argue separately.
Subsequently, the court allowed Shehbaz and Hamza to leave and adjourned the hearing for some time.
When the hearing resumed, their counsel Pervaiz argued that "not one rupee" was transferred from the 14 accounts mentioned by FIA to Shehbaz's account and there was no evidence regarding the same.
Court directs police to make plan
When the hearing resumed, security officials appeared in the court.
"They were working strangely and not allowing anyone to enter [the court premises]," the judge observed.
However, Pervaiz requested the court not to make the issue of security personnel a matter of record.
Judge Awan directed the security incharge, who was present during the hearing, to make a security plan for the future and not prevent lawyers, suspects and court reporters from entering the premises.
"I am letting it go this time, otherwise, I was going to make it a matter of judicial record," the judge added.
Charges against Shehbaz, Hamza
The FIA had in December 2021 submitted the challan against Shehbaz and Hamza to a special court for their alleged involvement in laundering an amount of Rs16bn in the sugar scam case.
"The investigation team has detected 28 benami accounts of the Shehbaz family through which money laundering of Rs16.3bn was committed during 2008-18. The FIA examined the money trail of 17,000 credit transactions," according to an FIA report submitted to the court.
The amount was kept in "hidden accounts" and given to Shehbaz in a personal capacity, the report added.
This amount (Rs16bn) has nothing to do with the sugar business (of Shehbaz family), it claimed. The money received from the accounts of low-wage employees by Shehbaz was transferred outside Pakistan via hundi/hawala networks, ultimately destined for beneficial use of his family members, the FIA had alleged.
"Eleven low-paid employees of the Sharif group who 'held and possessed' the laundered proceeds on behalf of the principal accused, are found guilty of facilitating money laundering. The three other co-accused of the Sharif group also actively facilitated the money laundering," the agency had said.