Panama Papers case: Walls close in on Nawaz Sharif; mudslinging in a long-drawn trial may be his best bet

There are alarm bells ringing in certain political circles of Pakistan, following the publication of the findings of the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) set up on the directions of the Supreme Court to probe the Panama Papers case. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif would have seen the writing on the wall six months ago, as he perused the members' list of the JIT. The inclusion of two intelligence officers in the JIT not only indicated the courts' poor opinion of other institutions, but also that, at the very least, the investigation was unlikely to dissolve into nothingness.

At first glance, the JIT appears to be made up of the best in the business. Its head, Wajid Zia, earlier of the Intelligence Bureau, and presently part of the Federal Investigation Agency, has had a distinguished career. He was also part of the second investigation team set up to investigate the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, at a time when the interior minister was Rehman Malik — who emerged as a suspect in a UN Commission. That investigation, of course, went nowhere.

A second member is Amir Aziz, son of a now retired brigadier, a man accused by the Sharifs of being biased against them. The grounds for this is that he was earlier awarded a medal for his investigation into the Sharif-owned Hudaiba Paper Mills case. Clearly, what one may see as bias, could be seen quite credibly, as qualified experience by another.

A third member of the team, Bilal Rasul, is said to be close to the Sharifs' nemesis, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, and its ageing leader Imran Khan.

The two intelligence officers in the JIT were earlier part of the investigation into the so called "Dawn leaks" case.

Clearly, there is nobody on the team who's even remotely likely to be sympathetic to the Sharifs.

File image of Nawaz Sharif. Reuters

File image of Nawaz Sharif. Reuters

The court itself is no less. The earlier 549-page judgment of the Supreme Court showed extreme skepticism towards the Sharifs' innocence, wondering at one point why the family had not taken the opportunity to clear their names in front of the court and the people of Pakistan. It equally cast blame on the heads of major institutions, like the National Accountability Bureau, as having been "partial and partisan". Now the court itself has come under question for its actions.

As noted human rights lawyer Asma Jehangir pointed out, the JIT's findings will have to come up in a trial, and clearly this cannot be in the Supreme Court itself — which is the final court of appeal. Moreover, it is unclear why the court first refused to hear the case, on grounds that it was not within its jurisdiction, and then changed its mind.

Moreover, there is also some evidence of a selection process of sorts by the court in forming the JIT. Another apparent leak — the government appears to be leaking like a sieve — was to suggest that somebody within the establishment colluded to ensure that at least two of the chosen members were at the very least not likely to be terribly in favour of the Sharif clan.

Meanwhile, the JIT report itself has not been able to pin responsibility on Nawaz Sharif himself for any specific acquisition of property. For instance on the question of the Gulf Steel Mills, the court had asked for clarity on who owned it, why it was sold, and what happened to the proceeds. The JIT declared that the apparent owner, Tariq Shafi — earlier a defaulter in loans taken from the infamous Bank of Credit and Commerce in Pakistan — has produced documents which are patently false. He and another benami owner, Mohammad Hussain, are cited as frontmen for Sharif. This, however, is a finding in default, with no evidence available to prove that claim.

In case of the ownership of the flats in London, the investigation unhesitatingly condemns Maryam Nawaz, Sharif's attractive and media savvy daughter, for filing false documents, and establishes her as the owner. The key question, as to where money for this purchase will come from, is however still unclear, since the role of the Al Thani family in Qatar is still unclear. Earlier, Qatari prince Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al Thani had come to the rescue of the Sharifs. However, despite trusted aides of the ruling family positioned in Qatar to handle matters there, the prince has refused to come to Pakistan, or even record his statement at the Pakistan embassy. The JIT now says the letters were a "myth", and that a money trail leading from the proceeds of the sale of one property and purchase of another doesn't tally.

In the final question put by the Supreme Court as to whether the prime minister possessed "disproportionate assets", the JIT rather reasonably states that while it did not expect an absolute estimation from any of the respondents, it did expect some reasonable explanation for the (demonstrably huge) assets that showed "exceptional growth" between 1985-1999. This was the period when Sharif first became finance minister of Punjab (1982) to when he had his first term as prime minister (till May 1993). He returned to power in February 1997, when he was finally overthrown (quite literally) by his own nominee, General Pervez Musharraf.

The JIT has been able to access records of the old cases, including those against Ittefaq Foundries and Ittefaq Textiles, all of which took massive loans when Sharif was in power, and then showed an inability to pay them back. Clearly, the scale of alleged theft is astounding, even by South Asian standards.

Even as the Sharif team goes into a huddle, the political opposition is sharpening its swords, asking that the prime minister resign on the grounds that he is not "ameen" (honest) as required by Article 62 (1)(f) of the Pakistani Constitution of a Member of Parliament. This is setting the standards impossibly high in any situation, since honesty is hardly the bedrock of politics. In Pakistan, it assumes shades of the Brothers Grimm. However, the threat of disqualification is real. Earlier, two judges of the bench had already ruled against Sharif in terms of the article on honesty and integrity. However, three of the seven-member bench had called for an investigation. A long-drawn out trial is Sharifs' only hope, where enough mud-slinging until elections next year in June 2018.

Neither Nawaz Sharif or his daughter Maryam are likely to be able to contest the next election, even if the proceedings are delayed until then. The original Panama Papers makes no mention of Shahbaz Sharif, Nawaz's brother and the present Chief Minister of Punjab. Generally regarded as an efficient administrator, the family could use Panamagate as a plank for public sympathy, by alleging persecution by the "establishment". In this case, Shahbaz could be a leading and convincing candidate, particularly since other major parties are in tatters. The only other party with a national standing is the PPP (Pakistan People's Party) which is riven by family rivalry and inner party feuds. Tehreek-e-Insaf has no standing across the country. Besides, leaders of both parties have their own set of corruption cases, that can be part of another series of "leaks” at any time.

Those who say that the Sharifs will probably win the next election are not far from wrong. The trouble is that the Supreme Court has chosen to make the JIT report public.

The final questions are two: The lesser one is how much corruption the Pakistani public can forgive. The answer to that is — probably a lot. Integrity is hardly a part of South Asia's political dictionary any longer, except in rare cases. The second question is far more interesting. That is, has the Pakistan Army and its backers — who are now largely Chinese — decided that matters relating to interests of both parties, may best be run without any political interference? In that case, expect a rubber stamp caretaker administration, now constitutionally valid after a landmark Supreme Court ruling — and part of the Constitution by the 18th and 20th Amendments. Following such a set up, it is simplicity itself for the Pakistan Army to create a suitable "mix" of political parties to form an "a la carte government".

The author is former director of the National Security Council Secretariat


Published Date: Jul 13, 2017 06:30 am | Updated Date: Jul 13, 2017 03:37 pm