Avenfield relief

Published September 30, 2022

THE legal firewalls erected between the PML-N’s Nawaz camp and the corridors of power now seem to be flickering out one by one.

Since Senator Ishaq Dar’s perpetual arrest warrants were suspended, he has returned home and is now heading the finance ministry despite spending five years absconding from the law.

Four years after they were convicted, the Islamabad High Court has given PML-N vice president Maryam Nawaz and her husband, Muhammad Safdar, a big reprieve. Setting aside a July 2018 accountability court ruling that had held Ms Nawaz guilty of concealing her father’s properties in the Avenfield Apartments reference, the IHC has now given her a clean chit and overturned the sentence.

There is now little stopping Ms Nawaz from contesting elections and becoming a formal member of the legislature.

Whether or not the ‘relief’ granted to Ms Nawaz and Mr Dar has legal merit is not the question at the moment. It is the integrity of our legal and accountability systems that stand thoroughly discredited.

There are but two ways of looking at these developments: either the cases never had enough in them for Ms Nawaz and Mr Dar to have faced the tribulations they did, or they are being dropped now as the times have changed, along with the preferences of powerful quarters. In either case, the law will not be able to easily shake off the pointing fingers of the public.

Read: The sun shines upon the House of Sharif

“Maryam’s acquittal in the Avenfield reference is a slap in the face of the so-called accountability system that was employed to target the Sharif family,” Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has said. What of the judicial system that was supposed to keep a check on the accountability system by evaluating the evidence in each case in an impartial, unbiased manner? How does the acquittal reflect on the fact that the accountability court judgements were never impeached till now?

It also does not help that the acquittal has come at the height of a populist movement against the government by a resurgent Imran Khan. He has, for months, been accusing the PDM of staying in power just to shut down the cases pending against its leaders. Since his ouster, Mr Khan has talked about certain quarters keeping a ‘hand on the pedal’ of the accountability process — applying pressure and taking it off when they wished.

Mr Dar’s return and Ms Nawaz’s acquittal have given him ammunition for his narrative. Will he once again turn his guns on the establishment? Does he also expect the political cases against him to disappear? It remains to be seen.

The one lesson that should be learnt from the past few years is that Pakistan desperately needs a complete overhaul of its anti-corruption regime. Accountability cannot continue to be treated like a revolving door in which politicians can be shoved in or pulled out on a whim.

Published in Dawn, September 30th, 2022

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