The Pakistan Supreme Court’s sentencing the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif to 10 years and his daughter Maryam Nawaz to seven years in jail in the Panama Papers’ case has left many in the country and the world wondering if the verdict is entirely about accountability. Anti-corruption and accountability are indeed popular mantras in the country, especially amongst the literate youth and the middle class. But the judgment has a political context and ought to be viewed in that light.
The need for accountability was popularised by both civil and military dispensations. Besides the military governments of Generals Zia-ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf, both Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto had used the handle of anti-corruption to punish the other, when in power. The courts had disposed off many cases that the two instituted against each other during the 1990s. Accountability was never possible especially because the country’s prime anti-corruption agency, the National Accountability Bureau and its National Accountability Ordinance, 1999 (NAO), were used mainly for political ends. While the Sharif family was exiled to Saudi Arabia in December 2000, negotiations were conducted with hundreds of other politicians in the backdrop of the accountability law. NAO stipulated over 10 years imprisonment for anyone involved in corruption.
However, the July 5 decision is still not about corruption.
The financial misconduct of Nawaz Sharif and his family were all stories until 2016 when the Panama Papers — documents of a Panama-based legal firm, Mossack Fonseca, pertaining to offshore companies of many bigwigs around the world — were leaked. On August 29, 2016, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) leader, Imran Khan, moved the Supreme Court (SC) to disqualify Nawaz Sharif as head of the government on the basis of the Panama disclosures. The SC turned down the application on the basis that the petitioners had not approached other more appropriate fora. But after Khan threatened protests, the Court decided to hear the case on October 28, 2016. Journalist Zia-ud-Din is of the view that this hyperactivity began on the day of the ‘Dawn leaks’ — a story by journalist Cyril Almeida regarding civilian leadership telling the military to control militants or face international ire. This was perhaps the last straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of the military’s capacity to tolerate Nawaz Sharif.
No matter how the judgment is presented, it is a fact that the entire judiciary suddenly turned hyperactive to prove Nawaz Sharif as not only corrupt but also incapable of being in politics. In another landmark decision, in April, the SC disqualified Nawaz Sharif for life from politics by invoking Article 62 (1)(f) of the 1973 Constitution and declaring him as not being sadiq and ameen (honest and truthful). This amendment was inserted in the Constitution by General Zia. It is worth mentioning that in April, the corruption case was still under process but the SC based its decision on a hypothetical calculation of undeclared assets pertaining to the payments Nawaz Sharif had not received as a director in his son’s company registered in the UAE. The judges were of the opinion that even if the then PM had not taken the money, he could do so at a later stage. Even the operative part of the July judgment admits that in the absence of documentary evidence pertaining to the Avenfield flats in London, it is difficult to prove Nawaz Sharif’s ownership of these flats. The court, however, presumed that these flats are owned by the ex-PM.
The judgment comes like an icing on the cake of an anti-Sharif campaign that started in 2016. During its peak in the last six months, it was headed by the country’s top adjudicator. With the media on his heels, the chief justice of the SC was seen going around questioning governance delivery in Punjab. His team members included the former judge, Justice Javed Iqbal, currently the head of the National Accountability Bureau.
There is little doubt that all this is not about ending corruption. Instead, the powerful military is punishing a former client, and re-shaping the country’s political field. Just like Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who had the support of some segments of the military in 1971 but was abandoned, and then physically eliminated, Sharif is being removed before his party becomes too powerful. From the ownership of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and fighting the battle in Afghanistan to managing the Kashmir issue and dealing with Donald Trump’s US and Narendra Modi’s India, there are numerous issues on which the establishment would like to have a greater say. Clearly, Nawaz Sharif, a former partner, who was installed against the Pakistan People’s Party during the early 1990s, had grown independent and far too confident to be allowed to continue in politics. His reference to the ISI’s dabbling in politics as “khalai makhlooq”(supernatural creatures) had to be dealt with severely. Military’s touts like Zaid Hamid, in fact, tweeted: “more punishment is coming towards him (Nawaz Sharif) now in other cases. His entire wealth will be confiscated… including the Raiwand palace”. Bleeding Nawaz Sharif and his PML-N to extinction is certainly one of the goals that may well be achieved by giving the leadership to his younger brother Shahbaz Sharif or other permanent members of the establishment like Chaudhry Nisar or Mushahid Hussain Syed.
In all this, the highest judiciary of the country has become the butt of jokes on social media, and the society at large. It seems to be collapsing under the weight of its current partnership with the military establishment in the civil-military battle. While taking “Nawaz Sharif to task”, it allowed former dictator Pervez Musharraf to leave the country. It even found a way to force the government to issue Musharraf with a new passport and identity card. With thousands of cases pending in the superior court, the chief adjudicator and his team have turned populist, citing Islamic history or appeasing the audience, rather than citing the law or creating common law. Institutional collapse and rising authoritarianism is, unfortunately, the trend in both Pakistan and India. However, given Pakistan’s civilian institutional decay, the loss is higher.