An accountability court in Lahore on Monday accepted Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif's application for permanent exemption from appearing at hearings in the Ramzan Sugar Mills case.
The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) had filed a reference against Shehbaz and his son Hamza Shehbaz in 2019, alleging that they "fraudulently and dishonestly" caused a Rs213 million loss to the national exchequer.
According to the NAB, when Shehbaz was the Punjab chief minister, he had issued a directive for the construction of a drain in Chiniot district primarily to benefit the sugar mills owned by his sons.
The anti-graft watchdog had claimed to have obtained "sufficient incriminating" material and evidence during the investigation.
In 2019, Shehbaz was arrested by the NAB in connection with the case but was later granted bail by the Lahore High Court (LHC).
At the outset of the hearing today, Judge Sajid Awan accepted Hamza's application for a one-time exemption from the proceedings.
Shehbaz's counsel, Amjad Pervez, informed the judge that the accountability court had already granted the premier permanent exemption from attending hearings in another case, claiming that his client had "never misused" it.
He asked for permanent exemption in the present case as well and requested that a pleader be appointed for Shehabz. "Shehbaz Sharif has now become the prime minister by God's grace. He has responsibilities to fulfil. He has consistently appeared before courts."
For his part, NAB's counsel, Asad Malik, opposed the application stating that medical certificates or other necessary documents had not been attached.
He argued that there had been no progress in the case for the last six months and if the court accepted the application, it would affect the trial.
Meanwhile, PM Shehbaz told the court that he had never missed a hearing without a valid reason.
"God has placed a huge responsibility on me. I hold meetings on important matters including [talks with] the IMF (International Monetary Fund), Gwadar, and the annual budget. I would have never submitted an application for [permanent] exemption but now I am fulfilling national responsibility."
He assured the court that he would appear before it whenever he was summoned.
"I caught the last flight from the United Kingdom to come to Pakistan and appear before the court [in May]," he said, while referring to the Rs16 billion money laundering case registered against him by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA).
"The Ramzan Sugar Mills are not mine. The area's MPA submitted the request for a drain. If I wanted to approve it for my children, would I not have done it 20 years ago?" Shehbaz said.
He added that the scheme was approved by the provincial cabinet. The premier recalled that the sugar mill owners had sought directions from the high court for him to reduce sugarcane prices but he had refused to do so.
"All my actions benefitted the province's people," Shehbaz claimed.
"The then chief secretary wrote to me stating that sugar production was sufficient and [the surplus] should be sent to other provinces. I rejected the request to export sugar."
The premier said his son had set up a mill for the production of ethanol but he had imposed excise duty on it. The sugar mill owners had challenged the decision in the high court, he said, adding that he fought the case through the then advocate general.
"My family lost Rs2.5bn because of my decisions. It was the PTI government that removed the excise duty."
The judge, however, observed that Shehbaz's statements were drifting towards politics while the court had to remain within the law's ambit.
Subsequently, the judge accepted the exemption application and adjourned the case till July 5.