Two days before ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif decided to fly back to Pakistan to appear before an accountability court, he had refused to answer a journalist’s repeated question if he planned to return home. It was more than obvious that either he didn’t intend to return or was still debating his options. Something happened between Thursday and Saturday that brought him back.
His brother, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, had arrived in London on Saturday, purportedly, carrying a special message. Reports said before leaving, the younger Sharif held a detailed meeting with the party’s alienated leader – his old pal – Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan believed to be close to the establishment, whom Mian Sahib and his daughter had been relentlessly attacking alongside the Supreme Court for their troubles. According to previous reports, during his visit to Turkey earlier this month, Shahbaz Sharif also had a telephonic conversation with the Army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa. So what was going on? More to the point, what was in the message that brought about a change in Mian Sahib’s mind? An informed guess suggests it offered at least two reasons: first, there was no need to unnecessarily antagonize the military annoyed over being dragged into the Panama Papers scandal controversy. Indeed, the joint investigation team that produced a damning report had included two army officers, like in so many previous cases involving other people. These officers though were included in the team by the apex court, and at the time the Sharif family had not objected to their inclusion. It can be assumed therefore the message from the Sharif- Bajwa telecom was ‘leave us out of your fight with the court’, and that since the case is being pursued by a NAB accountability court under Supreme Court supervision, that is where Mian Sahib could direct his rancor if he so pleases. Second and equally, if not more important, were the rumblings of a rebellion in the ruling party. Although the former PM’s men had surreptitiously managed to amend the Election Bill, 2017, paving the way for him to head the party despite being disqualified to remain a member of the National Assembly, his absence from the country for an indefinite duration could break up the party, and consequently the Sharifs hold on power.
That politely conveyed message seems to have worked. Reading out his carefully-worded statement at a news conference -he wouldn’t take any questions for fear of losing control – Mian Sahib made no mention of the ‘secret forces’ being behind his misfortune, but launched a full throttle attack against the judiciary. Playing the victim, he hurled a number of accusations at the apex court, including that he was not given the right to appeal; the same judges announced the decision (against his review petition), and asked NAB to file references; the same court then took control of NAB; “and the same bench will be hearing my last appeal, if it is filed.” All true. But it is also true that as per the Constitution no right of appeal lies against the apex court’s verdict, though a defendant can seek review, which in his case was granted. And the same judges hear review petition. The decision to appoint a supervisory judge to ‘control’ the proceedings was necessary to ensure Mian Sahib did not use his influence, given that in this case all relevant organisations – NAB, SECP, SBP, FBR and FIA – had refused to do their duty. And, of course, he iterated his absurd argument that since he had commanded public mandate to govern, the apex court had no right to hold him to account. This, he said, despite constantly making references to the Constitution that says all citizens – the rulers and the ruled – are equal before law, and the Supreme Court is the ultimate arbiter. Moreover, it forbids bringing the judiciary into disrepute.
While in London, Mian Sahib had to choose between two bad options, and pick the least damaging one. He could have continued to boycott the court proceedings – first scheduled to appear on September 19 before the Islamabad accountability court hearing the corruption references, the Sharif family had skipped the proceedings – by staying ensconced in London. That would have spelled the end of his long political career. The other was to appear before the court which is fraught with danger but may yet prevent total disaster.
Considering that during the year-long hearings of the Panama Papers corruption case in the Supreme Court the former PM and his children had failed to account for the resources with which the controversial properties in London were bought, the same is likely to happen in the NAB accountability court. Which is rife with risks Mian Sahib cannot be expected to face. Under section 10-A of the NAB law, an accused in such a case is liable for punishment of up to 14 years imprisonment, or fine, or both. For sure, Mian Sahib and his children are not prepared to go to prison. Despite the accountability court’s rejection of his request for exemption from personal attendance, he can ignore the proceedings and make his way back to London, using his wife’s ailment as an excuse. His handpicked government is not going to put his name on the Exit Control List. In such an event three-year jail sentence in absentia and likely confiscation of their assets in Pakistan won’t be so worrisome for the Sharif family since, as the JIT report revealed, they have billions stashed away abroad in the form of properties, businesses and bank accounts. But the problem is political survival; it urges fighting on to find a way out. For that Mian Sahib could be relying on the one escape route still open to him to defy justice, which is to let the accountability court announce its verdict, and then have the President use his prerogative to quash whatever the sentence. Meanwhile, railing against the judiciary is deemed necessary lest people should take the likely adverse verdict as proof of guilt and damage his standing with his base. He is back, but not without a plan to hoodwink the judicial process.