External Affairs

Will the Panama Papers Case Open Pandora’s Box on Corruption in Pakistan?

Given that the discovery was made by Pulitzer-winning international journalists and not an opposition party, this corruption case is being viewed as far more legitimate in Pakistan.

Nawaz Sharif and his immediate family are named in the case. Credit: Reuters/Pixabay

Nawaz Sharif and his immediate family are named in the case. Credit: Reuters/Pixabay

In his book Judging With Passion, Asif Saeed Khan Khosa, then a serving judge of the Lahore high court, wrote: “I always relished the task of removing any confusion creeping into the law and that is why more often than not cases involving interpretation of a new law or cases pertaining to issuing guidelines for the subordinate judiciary, etc. were fixed before my Bench.”

Khosa had been deposed along with other judges who refused to take oath under the Provisional Constitution Order promulgated by erstwhile dictator Pervez Musharraf in November 2007. Without any formal order for detention, Khosa was placed under house arrest for a week. The imposition of an emergency led to the emergence the nationwide Lawyers’ Movement calling for the restoration of the judiciary. Eventually Musharraf resigned on August 18, 2008, with then Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry emerging as a hero. Khosa was subsequently reinstated to office.

The spotlight is now on Khosa once again, as Pakistan awaits an important verdict in the Panama Papers case.

“The record of the relevant case and the applicable law were the only tools employed by me for arriving at my decisions and I never allowed any personal views on the circumstances outside the record or the courtroom to influence my judgements or orders,” wrote Justice Khosa in Judging With Passion.

A five-member bench headed by Khosa reportedly has a “strong difference of opinion” in the Panama Papers case, which names Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s immediate family. During his tenure as prime minister in the 1990s, benaami properties worth billions were allegedly purchased by Sharif in London in his daughter Maryam’s name, who was declared a dependent (or without a source of income) at that time. The prime minister’s sons, Hussein and Hassan, are also accused of owning several off-shore companies and using them to buy properties in the UK. The petition moved by the opposition Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI), headed by Imran Khan, accuses Sharif of misleading the nation in parliament and seeks his disqualification.

“I can say with surety that…not a single penny went out of Pakistan,” emphasised Sharif on the floor of parliament on May 16, 2016, soon after details emerged in the Panama Papers. The opposition staged a walkout as Sharif proposed a parliamentary commission to probe the allegations.

The opposition says that in previous corruption cases legal proceedings hardly moved beyond basic stages and leaders were acquitted. But this time there is no obscurity – the highest court bench is deliberating upon the petition. The dynamics are perceptibly different, as the petition is based on information exposed not by a political party in Pakistan but by a 108-strong network of news organisations globally, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which recently won the Pulitzer Prize for uncovering the corruption net.

PTI leader and member of the national assembly Shafqat Mahmood says, “Panama papers reaching the apex court has put the issue of corruption centre stage in Pakistani politics. Hopefully this will be the beginning of real accountability for corrupt politicians, bureaucracy and state institutions.”

There is palpable anxiety in the government and political circles at the moment, with several files moving slower owing to the uncertainty. The case has been debated in television studios for months now. People on the ground curiously ask,”Faisla kab aa raha hai? (When is the verdict expected?)”.

Abdul Qayyum, a senior Geo News journalist, says, “Leaves and offs for reporters tracking the Supreme Court stand cancelled in anticipation of the verdict. Bureaucrats and politicians are constantly making calls to us to gauge what speculations are rife in legal corridors.There is palpable nervousness.”

The case, the verdict on which has been reserved since February 23, even led to speculations on whether the army had a behind-the-scenes role. On April 8, Major General Asif Ghafoor, the Pakistan army spokesperson, tweeted to deny allegations.

“With Baloch blood running in my veins honour is the most precious thing in my life after my faith,” wrote Khosa in his book. In 2012, as part of a seven-member Supreme Court bench that gave its verdict on then Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani in a contempt of court case, Khosa cited Kahlil Gibran’s poetry in his additional notes.”Pity the nation that demands justice for all but is agitated when justice hurts its political loyalty,” his note said.

As reports suggest the verdict is around the corner, the big question is whether Khosa will interpret Articles 62 and 63 of the Pakistani constitution, dealing with grounds of disqualification for lawmakers. In a hearing involving allegations of dereliction of duty by the National Accountability Bureau last year, Khosa had reportedly quoted from the Jain Havala diaries case in India, which he closely followed. Will the bench achieve a consensus and set precedence for accountability and transparency in a country whose popular leaders including, Asif Ali Zardari and Sharif, have faced serious corruption charges in the past without consequences?

If the apex court does order the formation of an inquiry commission, the PTI could claim to be vindicated. This would show that there is enough in the leaks to suggest wrongdoing and the First Family were not able to clear all doubts on illegal transactions and money trails. The ruling party, on the other hand, could simply say that setting up an inquiry commission is not an indictment but only a logical step, which Sharif too had initially asked for.

The by-elections in mid-May in Chakwal in Punjab – the first seat to go to the polls since the Panama Papers erupted – will be a litmus test for the PTI and Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) in this perception war. It will test whether corruption is indeed an issue today for voters. Regardless of whether circumstances exist to disqualify Sharif as prime minister, any doubt cast by the final verdict could jeopardise the future political prospects of Sharif and his daughter Maryam, seen as the face to lead the party in the years ahead. For now, the case hangs like Damocles’s sword upon Sharif’s head. As Mahmood says, “It is an important case to determine the future of Pakistani politics.”

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    Corruption is not new in Pakistan. Panama papers have only disclosed the scale of corruption and black money in high places. With the two major parties trading corruption charges, alternative politics should come up and become a potential force in future elections