LONDON: British conservative newspaper Mail on Sunday, on Thursday, issued an apology to Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif over a 2019 article, in which it had alleged that he had siphoned off British aid money meant for earthquake victims.

The development is being billed as a symbolic victory for both the ruling PML-N and PM Shehbaz, and comes on the heels of a defamation case initiated by Mr Sharif against the paper in the United Kingdom in 2020. The decision is the culmination of months of hearings and a constant back and forth between the lawyers of the paper and Mr Sharif.

A brief statement published on the home page of the publication’s website on Thursday afternoon read, “In an article concerning Mr Shahbaz Sharif entitled ‘Did the family of Pakistani politician who has become the poster boy for British overseas aid STEAL funds meant for earthquake victims’ published on 14 July 2019 we reported on an investigation by Pakistan’s National Accountability Bureau into Mr Sharif and suggested that the money under investigation included a not insubstantial sum of British public money that had been paid to the Punjab province in DFID grant aid.”

The statement continued, “We accept Mr Sharif has never been accused by the National Accountability Bureau of any wrongdoing in relation to British public money or DFID grant aid. We are pleased to make this clear and apologise to Mr Sharif for this error.”

The article, which was publicly available on the publication’s website earlier, has now been removed as a search for the link now directs readers back to the home page.

The publication took these actions soon after informing the court that it had decided against going to trial and would settle the case initiated by Mr Sharif. In preliminary hearings, Justice Nicklin had said the paper would have to prove each of their allegations to win the case.

The article, written by journalist David Rose, made explosive allegations that Mr Sharif during his time as Punjab Chief Minister misappropriated UK taxpayers’ money when he allegedly siphoned off British government aid intended for the victims of the devastating 2005 earthquake in Pakistan. Both Mr Sharif and DfiD denied the charge. In January 2020, Mr Sharif hired Carter-Ruck, one of the UK’s best known law firms in the field of reputation management, to represent him.

Mr Sharif sought the withdrawal of the allegations and an unreserved and unambiguous apology from the Mail’s publisher. Although it is not clear what damages will be paid by the paper to Mr Sharif, his lawyers had said in 2020 that he will donate the sum to charity.

The 2019 story was used to politically damage Mr Sharif, who was opposition leader at the time, as senior PTI officials said it confirmed their beliefs about his alleged corruption. “British newspapers do not publish anything until they have triple checked. Unlike in other places they fear being sued. The Sharifs won’t sue daily mail because they know they will lose and the penalties would be in millions of pounds,” Shafqat Mahmood had tweeted when it was first published.

At the time, the PTI had used the story to reinforce its narrative of the opposition’s corruption, and accountability tsar Shahzad Akbar had told Dawn “everything can be substantiated as the standard of proof in this case is higher than a civil case and lower than criminal”.

Mr Akbar had also claimed there is “ample evidence” in the reference filed against mr Sharif.

Speaking to Dawn, PM Shehbaz said, “The Imran and Shahzad Akbar tag-team through this story decimated Pakistan’s reputation throughout the world. In the international community, they hurt the country’s reputation saying that it eats British taxpayer money to scare donors.

This apology does not just vindicate me, but is a vindication for Pakistan,” he said.

Published in Dawn, December 9th, 2022

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