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Panama Papers: Pak SC gives Nawaz Sharif relief. But will probe be an eyewash?

Vivek Katju | Updated on: 25 April 2017, 12:30 IST
(File photo)

On 20 April, the Pakistan Supreme Court decided in a 3-2 verdict to set up a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) to probe the validity of the material against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, accused of illegally owning property abroad.

It gave the decision in a case filed by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chairman Imran Khan and other Opposition leaders against Sharif, on the basis of the disclosures contained in the Panama Papers, which were made public last April.

According to the Panama Papers, the Sharif family owned offshore companies registered in tax havens as well as four apartments in Park Lane in upmarket London.

The court held that it would await the JIT report, which it ordered should be submitted in 60 days, before deciding if Sharif is to be disqualified from being a Member of Parliament under Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution, and therefore incompetent to hold his high office. These articles require inter alia that a MP should be 'honest and ameen'.

The judgement has given relief, if only temporary, to the Prime Minister; he has not been disqualified, and therefore, legally, does not have to resign.

However as none of the judges have accepted his version relating to the ownership of the properties —and two judges have called his statements 'a tissue of lies' — the Opposition and some lawyer groups have called for his resignation. In particular, Imran Khan has called for a massive demonstration in Islamabad on 28 April against Sharif.

There is no chance though that the Prime Minister will step down. Political morality is not the strong suit of the Sharifs or the Pakistan political class.

The judges' viewpoints

The two dissenting judges have relied on the popular meaning of the words 'honest' and 'ameen'. They have found Sharif's responses 'shifty' and 'evasive'. They have used strong language against him, and held that he does not meet the constitutional test of 'honest and ameen' and have held him guilty.

The three judges constituting the majority do not dispute that the Prime Minister has not been straightforward in his responses regarding the ownership of the Park Lane flats, which have been occupied by the Sharifs since 1993. However, in their view, dishonesty in the meaning of Articles 62 and 63 involves a “breach of a legal obligation or violation of law”. As the material before them is not conclusive, they have appointed the JIT.

Scepticism over JIT

Sceptical voices are being raised against the JIT, because it consists mainly of officers from civilian government agencies — the Federal Investigation Agency, the National Accountability Bureau, the Security and Exchange Commission and the State Bank of Pakistan, as well as ISI and Military Intelligence officers.

Will the civilian officers be able to find the independence and guts to really probe the Prime Minister, even if they have the Supreme Court's protection?

Besides, the task given to them in the final order is substantial, and may require the cooperation of foreign governments, which need not be forthcoming. Will the JIT be able to complete its task in the 60 days given to it?

The JIT has been empowered to summon Sharif and his sons. They will find this embarrassing, but will it all only be a drama? These are the questions that are being asked by Pakistani commentators.

Down but not out

Imran Khan and other opponents of Sharif will seek to push the point that the Sharifs, undoubtedly Pakistan's leading political family by virtue of their hold over the electoral politics of Punjab, have been dishonest. They will also be able to bring people on the streets, but it is unlikely that they will succeed in mounting sufficient pressure on Sharif to make him resign.

This will be all the more because national attention may shift to the JIT proceedings once it is constituted, which is likely within a week or so. Besides, as the JIT has ISI and MI officers as members, the army will have a behind-the-scenes role in its functioning, even though it will be supervised by the Supreme Court.

Certainly, the army has no incentive to destabilise Sharif currently, but it would like to keep him on a short leash, and would like to deal with a Nawaz Sharif. The judgement and the JIT have given it that opportunity.

Notwithstanding the scepticism against the JIT, the fact is that Sharif is not out of the woods. Perhaps he may feel more confident now than last year, when the Panama Papers storm broke, forcing him twice to address a doubtful country on national television, and also give a long explanation to Parliament about his family's financial dealings. But the judicial sword will keep dangling over his head, and the family's financial dealings will be under continuing scrutiny.

Impact on India

Nawaz Sharif counts for little in the making of Pakistan's India policy, though not for want of trying to influence it. He will now count for even less.

The Modi government will have to deal with the army, and as the Kulbhushan Jadhav matter shows, the army, under General Qamar Javed Bajwa, as under his predecessors, continues to be implacably hostile.

First published: 25 April 2017, 11:14 IST