The Islamabad High Court (IHC) on Thursday decided to hear PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif’s appeal against his conviction in the Al-Azizia reference on merit.
This means that the court will be hearing the actual substance of the case which includes the charge, the defence, the weight of evidence, etc., as opposed to matters of procedure or jurisdiction.
Analysts that Dawn.com spoke to said it effectively means the case was being expedited as the merits stage is the final stage before a decision is made, deeming it an an important development for Nawaz.
The decision was taken by a division bench comprising IHC Chief Justice Aamer Farooq and Justice Miangul Hassan Aurangzeb. The same bench had acquitted the PML-N leader in the Avenfield reference on November 29.
The reference pertains to the Sharifs being unable to justify the source of the funds provided to set up Al-Azizia Steel Mills and Hill Metal Establishment (HME) in Saudi Arabia.
The IHC had declared him a proclaimed offender in the case in December 2020. After leaving for London on medical grounds, Nawaz remained there for nearly four years and only returned to the country in October this year.
Soon after his return, Nawaz had formally filed two separate applications seeking restoration of his appeals against the conviction in reference.
In the application, the PML-N supreme leader had said that while he was abroad for medical treatment, the pending appeals were dismissed for non-prosecution. The application requested the court to revive the pending appeals to decide on these pleas on merit.
The IHC had on Oct 24 revived Nawaz’s appeals in the two reference.
Ahead of the hearing today, Nawaz arrived at IHC along with senior PML-N leaders Ishaq Dar, Azam Nazeer Tarar and others.
As the proceedings commenced, PML-N lawyer Amjad Pervaiz said his client’s appeal was against the Dec 2018 verdict in the Al-Azizia reference.
Justice Farooq inquired if the case was linked to the Panama Papers to which Pervaiz replied in the affirmative. The lawyer said three references were filed in the Panama cases: Al-Azizia, Avenfield and Flagship Investment references.
“An accountability court had acquitted Nawaz in the Flagship reference,” he recalled, adding that the aforementioned three references were the outcome of one Supreme Court judgment.
Elaborating Nawaz’s appeal, the lawyer contended that a single reference should have been filed against the PML-N leader as all the three references mentioned accusations of holding assets beyond means.
In Al-Azizia reference, Pervaiz continued, there were a total of 22 witnesses of which 13 had recorded their testimonies. However, none of them were eyewitnesses, he highlighted.
“In this case, only Wajid Zia and Mehboob Alam are lead witnesses,” the PML-N counsel added.
Here, the IHC CJ inquired about the charges in the said reference. “Assets beyond means,” Pervaiz replied, pointing out that the Al-Azizia Steel Company Private Limited was registered in Saudi Arabia in 2001.
He went on to say that the Hill Metal Establishment was established in Jeddah in 2005-2006, which is owned by PML-N supremo’s son Hussain Nawaz. “It is a well-established fact that the Hill Metal Establishment was set up after selling Al-Azizia company,” he contended.
But the NAB alleged that these were benaami [proxy] companies of Nawaz Sharif, the lawyer said, arguing that the PML-N leader had nothing to do with the bank accounts or operations of the companies.
He highlighted that the ages of Nawaz’s children in Avenfield reference were less than 18 but Hussain Nawaz’s age mentioned in the Al-Azizia reference was 28 years. The PML-N counsel further stated that the lead witnesses could not prove that Hussain was dependent on his father.
Pervaiz recalled that Nawaz was not a public office holder from Oct 1999 till May 2013.
At one point during the hearing, the NAB prosecutor brought up the video scandal surrounding former accountability judge Arshad Malik and asked the court to first look at petitions regarding that.
To that, Justice Aurangzeb said it was up to the petitioner if he wanted to pursue the matter as pleas pertaining to the same were filed in the court. “We can set up a screen here and play the video,” he stated.
But don’t forget this can also become a “double-edged sword”, the judge warned.
However, the PML-N counsel said his client did not want to press the matter as the said judge had passed away. Pervaiz then read out loud the SC judgment in the Panama Papers case.
“We have two options after the SC verdict. First is that we call for evidence ourselves and decide the case on merit. Second is that we remand the reference back to the accountability court,” the IHC CJ said.
Meanwhile, Justice Aurangzeb highlighted that if the case was sent back to the accountability court, Nawaz Sharif would be considered accused, not convicted. “Trial court will have to again decide on the case,” he added.
The judge added that if the NAB’s attitude remained the same then the PML-N would not have any problem.
Here, Azam Nazeer Tarar said: “There have already been a lot of injustices committed against Nawaz. We request that this court decide on Nawaz Sharif’s appeal on merit.”
At one point, the NAB prosecutor requested the court to send the reference back to the accountability court. However, the IHC rejected the request and decided to hear the case on merit.
Subsequently, the PML-N counsel began presenting arguments on the merit of the appeal. He said Hussain had sent an amount to Nawaz in 2017 via a banking channel four years after the Hill Mill Establishment was set up. The lawyer stated that the amount was also shown in tax returns.
Pervaiz reiterated that Nawaz had no connection with Al-Azizia and Hill Mill Establishment and never claimed the ownership of the two companies. The same argument, he continued, was also put before the SC, trial court and joint investigation team.
“It is not a crime for a son to send his father money from abroad,” he contended. “They [NAB] says that you [Nawaz] are the real owner of the company because money was sent to you from abroad,” the PML-N counsel said, adding that the anti-graft body relied on the photocopy of a report prepared against Nawaz by a Saudi Arabian audit firm.
Pervaiz said the Al-Azizia company was registered in 2001 while the Hill Metal Establishment, owned by Hussain Nawaz, was registered in 2005 and there was no evidence to prove the PML-N supremo’s connection with the latter.
The NAB’s entire case was to prove that Nawaz Sharif owned these companies, the lawyer pointed out. “But the shareholders of these companies were Hussain Nawaz, Abbas Sharif and a lady.”
Nawaz Sharif’s position was that Al-Azizia was set up by his father and the former had no connection with the company, Pervaiz said. “Even the head of the JIT had admitted in the cross examination that he did not find any documented evidence regarding Nawaz’s connection with the company,” he highlighted.
The PML-N lawyer further stated that Nawaz Sharif’s family had set up the Gulf Steel Mills in Dubai in 1967 and it was biggest steel mill in the region. “It is a different matter if they remained profitable later or not,” he added.
Here, Justice Farooq remarked that even if it was accepted that the property belonged to Nawaz Sharif the prosecution still had to establish four factors.
For his part, Pervaiz said all the four factors were missing as Nawaz Sharif was not a public office holder at the time.
On the other hand, the NAB prosecutor said a document was submitted in the apex court by Hussain Nawaz. However, Pervaiz said the document was not submitted by the PML-N but by a respondent in the case.
Here, Justice Farooq inquired what the document was about, to which the PML-N counsel replied that it was an audit report. The judge then asked Pervaiz if he had raised objections when a photocopy of the report was presented as evidence.
“If you did object, then what was the court’s verdict on that?” he asked. In his response, Pervaiz said witness Wajid Zia had said in the cross examination that the report was a service document.
Justice Farooq also asked if there was a certified document regarding the salaries payable to Nawaz by Al-Azizia Mills and whether the person who prepared the document confirmed it in court.
The PML-N counsel replied that the chartered accountant who had prepared the document never appeared in court. He added that only photocopies of the documents were presented, highlighting that the court had declared photocopies as unacceptable during the hearing of the Avenfield reference.
Subsequently, the hearing was adjourned till Tuesday, Dec 12.