Dawn – Tainted but intact

Abbas Nasir

Op-Ed, 22 April 2017. As the Saudi royal jet took off from Lahore airport carrying the former Pakistan army chief to his new assignment in Riyadh merely a day after a Supreme Court verdict in the Panama Papers scandal left the prime minister in office, nothing could have better symbolised the Sharif family’s palpable relief.

Palpable relief because a several months-long cloud of doom and foreboding had finally lifted, leaving no immediate threat. Strained relations between Nawaz Sharif and his appointee Raheel Sharif, which were awkward at best, had degenerated to a near breakdown with the publication of Cyril Almeida’s story in this paper last year.

Side by side, the Panama Papers scandal, which turbocharged the opposition PTI and its leader Imran Khan into organising mass protests to seek the removal of the incumbent prime minister, eventually prompted the Supreme Court to take up the case.

Propriety is as rare in this breed of politicians as probity, whether financial or in terms of governance.

The chief justice’s decision may have defused a possible crisis as a result of street agitation, but once the proceedings started it became clear that the first family was often going to face extremely uncomfortable and embarrassing questions in court while trying to establish how it came to own expensive London real estate through offshore companies.

Towards the beginning of last year, the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung received from a whistleblower some 11.5 million documents held by the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca. The paper then shared the data with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).

The leak demonstrated how the wealthy around the world use offshore companies to evade taxes, move funds around the world surreptitiously and even launder money. When the names of the prime minister’s sons were found in these documents, the ICIJ emailed them to seek their version before making the information public.

At this stage, rather than seek proper, top-drawer legal counsel or respond to the ICIJ, the Sharifs tried to be clever by half. First the prime minister’s son Hussain gave two TV interviews mainly to upstage the ICIJ release by ‘explaining’ how the family came to own the London real estate.

Then when the information was made public by the German paper and the ICIJ, and a storm started to brew in Pakistan with calls for the prime minister to explain the acquisition of prime London properties or resign, the PM responded twice.

First in a televised address, he offered himself up for accountability (but his request for a judicial inquiry was turned down by the then chief justice) even as he denied any impropriety in the purchase of the flats in the UK capital’s prohibitively expensive Mayfair district.

This was followed by a speech in the National Assembly where the prime minister seemed to offer a more elaborate explanation of how his family financed the purchase.

In this speech he also talked of how Z A Bhutto’s nationalisation in the early 1970s had made paupers of the Sharifs and how his father then rebuilt the family fortunes by starting industrial units abroad.

Nawaz Sharif’s address may have brought a lump to the throats of his most diehard supporters, but to the rest of us it was clear that the prime minister and his son on two different occasions each, and even his daughter Maryam during a TV interview, were not singing from the same hymn sheet.

Some of these contradictions figured in the dissenting notes written by the two seniormost judges of the five-member apex court bench hearing the case and prompted the two to say Nawaz Sharif stood disqualified from being a member of parliament (also from holding office); and hence should be de-notified by the Election Commission.

The majority, three judges, decided to leave the prime minister in office but called for a Joint Investigation Team to inquire into unanswered questions about the money trail and report back to an SC bench to be set up by the chief justice, at which point action against the prime minister was not ruled out.

Although the composition of the JIT reflected a compromise of the three judges with their two senior colleagues, as they included one member each from the ISI and MI to possibly give it ‘teeth’, the move could have been far more significant had it happened in General Raheel Sharif’s final months in office when he was seen as very hostile to the government.

Now with an army chief who seems committed to supporting the democratic order and focusing his attention mainly on professional matters, the role played by the members belonging to the services intelligence agencies may be no more than perfunctory.

Frankly, I have my doubts that the JIT will have the expertise and resources to do the job assigned to it in the given 60 days even when overseen by the SC. Here too let’s see who will head/be on the bench.

It would perhaps have been more advisable to authorise and fund the JIT to co-opt overseas forensic investigators from a firm similar to the one used by senator Saifur Rehman in the 1990s who found Asif Zardari’s $60m in a Swiss bank account.

Barring unforeseen dramatic developments, Nawaz Sharif seems to have survived twin challenges from an overbearing (former) army chief and a determined opposition leader who had sought the help of an increasingly headstrong and independent apex court to dislodge the prime minister.

Ideally, the prime minister should have voluntarily stepped aside for the duration of the JIT inquiry so he appeared before it as a citizen rather than as the country’s chief executive, but propriety is as rare in this breed of politicians as probity, whether financial or in terms of governance.

So, for now Mr Sharif may have been tainted but remains firmly in the saddle. Will his voters or the electorate in general take into account allegations of corruption whenever the next elections are held? Who knows?

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.




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