It comes before the former premier’s impending arrival on Oct 21. His planned return to Pakistan would be after almost four years of self-imposed exile.
In July 2018, ousted Nawaz was handed 10 years in jail in the Avenfield properties corruption reference for owning assets beyond known income and one year for not cooperating with the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), which was to be served concurrently.
His daughter, PML-N Chief Organiser Maryam Nawaz, had also been sentenced to seven years in jail in the case but was acquitted in September 2022 along with her husband retired Captain Safdar.
The Al-Azizia Steel Mills corruption reference pertains to the case in which he was sentenced to seven years in jail on Dec 24, 2018 and then taken to Rawalpindi’s Adiala Jail, from where he was shifted to Lahore’s Kot Lakhpat jail next day. He was also fined Rs1.5 billion and US$25 million in the case.
Nawaz was released from jail in March 2019, following which he left for London in November 2019 after the LHC allowed him to do so. The IHC declared him a proclaimed offender in both cases in December 2020.
A day ago, PML-N lawyers had moved the IHC seeking protective bail for Nawaz in these two cases, with NAB Special Prosecutor Afzal Qureshi saying that the accountability watchdog did not object to pleas moved by the elder Sharif.
Today, IHC Chief Justice Aamer Farooq and Justice Miangul Hasan Aurangzeb took up the pleas.
Nawaz’s counsels, including former law minister Azam Nazir Tarar and Amjad Pervaiz, appeared before the court while NAB prosecutors Rana Maqsood, Qureshi and Naeem Sanghera were also present.
At the outset of the hearing, Sanghera presented his arguments in favour of the PML-N supremo, at which the chief justice asked, “Has the NAB’s stance changed?”
The prosecutor replied, “NAB’s stance is the same.” He went on to recall that the IHC had written in its order that when the petitioner returns, he could “restore his appeal”.
Justice Farooq once again asked, “We had asked the same — what was NAB’s stance? There hasn’t been any change in it?”
The prosecutor responded, “This is the stance for now that if he comes back, we have no objection to it.”
The chief justice then inquired, “Who have you taken directions from?” To this, Sanghera answered that he had taken directives from the NAB prosecutor general.
Justice Farooq then directed him to submit a statement in written form to the court that the NAB had no objection to Nawaz’s return.
Subsequently, the IHC accepted the former prime minister’s pleas, granting him protective bail and restraining the police from arresting him upon his arrival in the country on October 21 (Saturday).
Justice Farooq and Justice Aurangzeb observed that NAB had no issue with Nawaz being granted protective bail and issued directives barring the police from arresting him till October 24.
The written orders issued by the court, copies of which are available with Dawn.com, said that since the respondent had “accorded its consent and decided not to contest the petition, let the petitioner appear before this court on October 24”.
“Meanwhile, he shall not be arrested on his arrival in Pakistan until he surrenders before this court,” it said.
“The honourable IHC has granted Nawaz Sharif protective bail until October 24,” Nawaz’s lawyer Pervaiz told AFP after the hearing. “He can not be arrested on his arrival,” he added.
Tarar also confirmed the same to reporters that Nawaz had been granted protective bail. Tarar said the party leader would follow up appeals against his convictions, which have been pending since he left, in the hope of overturning them and campaigning for the upcoming general election.
“It is everyone’s constitutional right to freely do political activities,” the former law minister asserted.
Reacting to the development, former premier Shehbaz Sharif said that Nawaz was “disqualified based on a fictitious and fabricated story”.
“He was implicated in absurd cases and subjected to mistreatment. Any fair hearing would have established his innocence,” he added.
The ex-PM further said, “Bail is a fundamental right, and we welcome the IHC decision in this regard, hoping that justice will prevail, InshaAllah.”
Former finance minister Ishaq Dar said that the PML-N supremo would reach Islamabad in the afternoon of October 21 and would later leave for Lahore to address a rally at Minar-i-Pakistan.
‘Grant of protective bail raises significant concerns’
Meanwhile, lawyer Usama Khawar said that the grant of protective bail to Nawaz raised “significant concerns” about the state of rule of law in Pakistan.
“While it is technically within the competence of the courts to grant such relief, it is an extraordinary measure not typically extended to ordinary convicts or accused individuals,” he said.
“This selective application of legal remedies based on one’s political alignment does not bode well for the perception of justice and equality before the law in Pakistan,” he added.
Khawar said that the broader issue at play was the perception that courts and legal institutions in Pakistan were “being used as tools for political manipulation by powerful entities”.
“Those in favor of the establishment seem to receive favorable treatment from the courts, while those who challenge its hegemony face persecution and legal hurdles. This uneven application of the law is evident in the cases of both Nawaz and ex-premier Imran Khan,” he said.
He said that Nawaz faced persecution in 2017-2018 when he was at apparent odds with the establishment but now, “with apparent alignment”, was receiving “extraordinary relief”.
“This pattern is also reflected in Imran Khan’s experience as well,” Khawar said. He said that such “disparities” undermined the credibility of the judiciary and the legal system, further eroding rule of law in Pakistan.
He said that it was necessary to underscore that the fundamental principle of justice required not only being fair but also appearing so.
“Judges must not only be impartial, but there should be no doubt about their impartiality. When judges who previously convicted someone like Nawaz now grant him exceptional reliefs, it raises concerns about both the actual and perceived impartiality of the judiciary,” the lawyer said.
He went on to say that such inconsistencies deepened the distrust in the country’s legal system.
“To restore confidence in justice and fairness, Pakistan’s legal system must ensure the equal application of the law, regardless of political influences. This is crucial for rebuilding public trust and upholding rule of law,” Khawar said.
Arrest warrants in Toshakhana case suspended
Separately, an Islamabad accountability court suspended perpetual arrest warrants issued against Nawaz in 2020 in the Toshakhana reference.
The case accused him, former president Asif Ali Zardari and ex-prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani of receiving luxury vehicles and gifts from the Toshakhana — a department that stores gifts given to rulers, parliamentarians, bureaucrats and officials by heads of other governments, states, and foreign dignitaries.
In June 2020, an accountability court issued non-bailable arrest warrants against the former premier in the case. Months later, Nawaz challenged the warrants in the IHC but withdrew the petition days later.
On Sept 10, 2020, he was declared a proclaimed offender in the case, with an accountability court initiating the process to confiscate his properties and directing NAB to make his arrest through Interpol.
The next month, an accountability court ordered authorities to seize the ex-premier’s assets, including national and international bank accounts, agricultural land and vehicles.
Following the Supreme Court’s order that struck down amendments to the NAB laws and reopened graft cases against public office holders, an accountability court had also summoned Zardari and Gillani in the same case last month.
Today, Judge Muhammad Bashir took up a petition seeking the suspension of the warrants, where Qazi Misbah appeared as Nawaz’s counsel while the NAB prosecutor was also present.
At the outset of the hearing, the defence counsel informed the court that the petition seeking the suspension of warrants was filed a day ago and that Nawaz had been declared an absconder in the case.
Misbah stated, “Nawaz Sharif wants to appear before the court. He is arriving in Pakistan on October 21.” He then urged the court to suspend the arrest warrants. Here, Judge Bashir noted that the Toshakhana case was a matter of NAB court No.3.
“There is a hearing fixed before your court on October 24. Nawaz Sharif wants to appear before the court,” Misbah told the court. The judge then sought the record of the case.
When asked about the reason behind Nawaz leaving Pakistan, the lawyer stated that all details were mentioned in the documents and that Shehbaz had submitted an undertaking.
Judge Bashir then asked whether the PML-N supremo had filed a plea in the IHC seeking protective bail in the case, to which Misbah answered he had not. “Warrants were issued in the Toshakhana case [but] verdict was not pronounced,” he said.
The lawyer argued that warrants against Dar were also suspended in a “case of similar scale”. When asked about why Nawaz wasn’t returning to Pakistan, Misbah stated, “When Nawaz Sharif left Pakistan, he was extremely unwell. The medical report is attached.”
Assuring the judge that Nawaz would appear before the accountability court, Misbah argued that the NAB had not issued any arrest warrant against the PML-N supremo.
“Nawaz Sharif wants to come and appear before the accountability court. Kindly suspend the warrants so that he gets a path to come to the court,” Misbah contended.
Meanwhile, the prosecutor informed the court that the former prime minister has “sought two reliefs and is saying he wants to surrender before the court”. He offered that the court may suspend the warrants till October 24 if the suspect wanted to appear before the court.
Here, the defence counsel informed the court that the case against his client in the accountability court is in the “trial stage” whereas in other cases, it is at the “stage of appeal”. He added that Nawaz had gone abroad four months before the reference was filed.
Judge Bashir then asked, “What about other suspects, Asif Ali Zardari?” To this, the lawyer replied that Zardari and others are appearing before the court through a pleader.
“Were the other suspects arrested?” the judge asked, to which Misbah answered that no arrest had taken place in the Toshakhana case.
“We will present the arguments find retail on October 24. [Nawaz] will reach Pakistan on October 21 [so] the permission to appear before the court may kindly be granted,” the counsel said.
Here, the prosecutor noted, “Nawaz Sharif wants to appear before the court. Even the objective of a warrant is to face the law.”
Subsequently, the court reserved its verdict. It shortly announced that the warrants were suspended till October 24 and directed that Nawaz should appear before the court by then, otherwise, further action would be taken.
Additional input from AFP and Reuters