Skip to main content

Pakistan's Panamagate - I told you so!

Irfan Husain in The Dawn

IN a nation of some 200 million, I doubt if a handful could pinpoint Panama’s location. And yet, this tiny Central American state has dominated Pakistan’s political discourse for the last year to the point of tedium.

Finally, after nearly two months of hearings before a Supreme Court bench, the verdict is here. And, as I had predicted to friends a few weeks ago, it is a cop-out that has both sides declaring victory.

For me, the abiding image is of the Sharif brothers, Nawaz and Shahbaz, embracing and beaming at each other. In the PTI camp, we watched Imran Khan and senior party members pass sweetmeats around.

For the SC, the verdict gave the impression of balance and fairness, with something for both sides to cheer about. Imran Khan had a lot of praise for the two dissenting judges who declared the prime minister ineligible to rule because he didn’t meet the criteria of honesty and integrity laid down in the Constitution.

The ruling PML-N is gloating over a verdict that, for the time being, has let their leader off the hook. As far as the party is concerned, it has every chance of hanging on to power until the 2018 election. Here, according to opinion polls, it is most likely to win a majority. So who’s the real winner in the verdict?

When the Panama brouhaha began a year ago, I had suggested that the Sharif brothers were masters of kicking the can down the road, and would drag matters out indefinitely. Now, with a joint investigative team (JIT) being set up, expect more of the same.

Even though the SC has required the JIT to submit fortnightly progress reports, the fact remains that members of this committee will all be serving members of the civil and military bureaucracy. To expect them all to perform their tasks independently is a rather big ask.

Then there is the problem of the team having to obtain and verify information in different jurisdictions. Will they be able to force banks and government departments in Dubai and Qatar to hand over documents? And all this in two months? Forgive my scepticism, but having first-hand knowledge of the pace at which our bureaucracy works, I have some doubts.
No wonder that Imran Khan is demanding the PM’s resignation. He knows how difficult it will be to get a group of civil servants to report against a sitting PM. But he’s right in underlining Nawaz Sharif’s loss of moral authority to rule.

Irrespective of the legal rights and wrongs of the case, it is clear that the daily drip-drip-drip of corrosive evidence against Sharif and his family has done much to strip away the aura of decency he had tried to project. And his disqualification by the two dissenting judges on the bench has reinforced the impression of corrupt practices at the heart of the Sharif empire.

With supreme irony, Asif Zardari has also demanded Nawaz Sharif’s resignation, and asked if he would be taken to the local police station for questioning, or would the JIT go the PM House? The reference here was to his own vicious treatment over a decade of incarceration.

Indeed, the PPP has good reason to be aggrieved at what has often appeared to be its targeting by the judiciary, starting with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s judicial murder to the sacking of another elected PM, Yousuf Raza Gilani. In many other cases, the judiciary has displayed an apparent animus against the PPP.

And yet, despite demands for his resignation from the opposition, Nawaz Sharif isn’t going anywhere. He didn’t get to where he is by being sensitive to corruption charges. Throughout his political career, he has shown himself to be tough and opportunistic.

Imran Khan has given examples from other countries where leaders tainted by the Panama Papers have either provided full disclosure (David Cameron), or resigned (Iceland’s Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson). However, members of Putin’s and Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle have not even bothered denying the allegations against them contained in the leaks.

As we know, there is no tradition of resignations in Pakistan. Even in Israel, Bibi Netanyahu is mired in corruption charges, but is refusing to step down. But in Israel, the police are far more independent than they are in Pakistan, and have investigated similar charges against presidents and prime ministers before.

Whatever happens next, Panama is a name that will continue to resound on our TV chat shows for some time to come. But will the verdict reduce corruption? I doubt it. But it will force crooked politicians to be more careful about their bookkeeping.

A final factoid: the verdict triggered our stock exchange’s biggest bull run, with the index shooting up by 1,800 points in a single session. Do investors know something we don’t?




----The background of the case to those who don't know by Husain Haqqani



Pakistan’s Supreme Court is an arena for politics, not an avenue for resolution of legal disputes. Unlike other countries where the apex court serves as the court of last appeal, Pakistan’s Supreme Court often entertains direct applications from political actors and generates high-profile media noise. In that tradition its judgment in the so-called Panama Papers case is a classic political balancing act. It raises questions about Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s property in London, but does not remove him from office.

Opposition politician Imran Khan, currently a favourite of Pakistan’s establishment, initiated the case after Mr. Sharif’s name appeared in leaked documents about owners of offshore companies worldwide. The documents indicated that the Sharif family had borrowed money against four flats they own in London’s posh Mayfair district.

Show them the money

Having an offshore account is not in itself a violation of Pakistani law, but transferring money from Pakistan illegally is. Hence the case decided on Thursday revolved around the provenance of the money with which the Sharifs became owners of the property in London. In hearings that began in January, the petitioners insisted that the Sharif family’s ownership of this particular property could not have been possible without their possession of undeclared wealth or illegal transfers of money from Pakistan.

Instead of insisting on the time-honoured principle that accusers must prove their allegation beyond a shadow of a doubt and that investigations must precede judicial hearings, the Supreme Court acted politically. It asked the Sharifs to explain the source of money used to buy property abroad, forcing the Sharif family’s lawyers to offer various (sometimes contradictory) explanations at sensational hearings.

One of these explanations comprised a letter from a member of the Qatari royal family who said that he had transferred $8 million to the Sharif family as return on investments made in cash by the Prime Minister’s deceased father, Mian Muhammad Sharif, in the Qatari family’s real estate business in 1980.

The Qatar letter did not settle the matter because the Sharif family members had, at different times, given different explanations for the source of their funds. Moreover, the timelines of the acquisition of the London properties, the formation of the offshore company that was used to buy them and the apparent cash dealings in Qatar did not always align. In any case, a Qatari royal might be willing to send a letter for his friends, the Sharifs, but could not be expected to testify in person in Pakistan and submit himself to cross-examination, something that would be needed if the case ever went to proper trial.

The Supreme Court’s final verdict was split 3-2 among the five-judge bench, with two ruling that Prime Minister Sharif should be disqualified from holding office for failing to explain the source of money for his property. The majority said there was insufficient evidence for such a drastic step and instead announced the formation of a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) comprising five members.

These would include appointees from the Federal Investigation Agency, the National Accountability Bureau, the State Bank of Pakistan, the Securities & Exchange Commission of Pakistan and one representative each from the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Military Intelligence (MI).

The fallout

The Prime Minister’s side breathed a sigh of relief that the court did not disqualify him from holding office, a decision it has given in the past for the removal of elected civilian Prime Ministers. Imran Khan, who wanted disqualification, declared victory even with the JIT’s creation. He and other opponents of the government are hoping that Nawaz Sharif will now bleed politically from the thousand cuts that are likely to be inflicted on him through reports emanating from the JIT.

Mr. Sharif has won elections before notwithstanding allegations of personal financial wrongdoing, but a new wave of charges could make things difficult for him in Punjab’s urban centres when Pakistan goes to the polls in 2018.

Ironically, the Supreme Court’s nearly 549-page judgment begins not by invoking some eminent jurist, but with a reference to Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather, citing Balzac’s well-known words, “Behind every great fortune there is a crime.” But then most Pakistanis, including judges and military officers, have known for years that the fortunes of Pakistan’s uber-wealthy families come from bending or breaking laws or using political connections for private advantage. Why go looking into the origins of wealth now?

The creation of the JIT, and including two military intelligence service members who are not trained in matters relating to business and finance, says more about Pakistan’s judicial and political system than it says about the merits of this particular case. The issue in Pakistan is never corruption or failing to explain the source of funds for property. It is where someone fits into the permanent state’s scheme of things.

Nawaz Sharif was fine when he was picked up by General Zia-ul-Haq as leader of a military-backed Punjabi political elite after the coup of 1977. Courts and investigators seldom found anything wrong with the phenomenal expansion of his family’s wealth until he decided to start questioning Pakistan’s military establishment and, in recent years, even assert himself in core policy areas. Politicians can make money as long as they do not seek a role in policymaking. When Benazir Bhutto stood for a different paradigm for Pakistan, she and her husband were subjected to long-drawn legal proceedings over corruption. Asif Ali Zardari might have fewer problems on that score now after he is content to parrot the establishment’s views on national security and foreign policy. Nawaz Sharif is being put through the wringer to become more like Mr. Zardari and less like Bhutto.

As for the Pakistani Supreme Court, it intervenes to swing politics one way or another by favouring the country’s establishment against politicians or vice versa, to justify patently unconstitutional military takeovers and occasionally to embarrass one party against another. Unlike elsewhere in the world, its function is not just to determine the constitutionality and legality of judgments already given by lower courts.

As a victim of one such Commission (ironically, created on Mr. Sharif’s petition) in the so-called Memogate Case, I know that the principal damage inflicted by its proceedings is to public image. The Memogate Commission’s findings never led to criminal charges, not even an FIR, against me for any crime as none was actually committed. But its proceedings and comments created sufficient political noise for some Pakistanis to still think I am a fugitive from Pakistani law.

Signal from the deep state?

Generating smoke without fire against persons deemed difficult or uncontrollable by Pakistan’s permanent state establishment, the deep state, is often the greatest accomplishment of inquiries created by the Supreme Court on direct petitions like the one over the Panama Papers.

The JIT might still find nothing definitive for prosecution but Mr. Sharif is on notice. And that is how Pakistan’s system is designed to work.

Comments