Bowing to the military supremacy in Islamabad, Pakistan’s Supreme Court on July 28 disqualified Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from holding public office for life after an exposé of Panama law firm Mossack Fonseca’s financial dealings showed that three of Sharif’s children owned offshore companies. There was no trial, no reading of evidence, recording or cross examining witnesses; only a judicial indictment leading to Sharif’s instant exit.
The judgement conforms to the Pakistan Supreme Court’s tendency to legalise military coups (1958, 1977 and 1999) under what it calls the “doctrine of necessity.” The ouster of an elected Prime Minister, while not surprising, further diminishes the quality of the country’s fragile democracy and makes Pakistan a more turbulent neighbour.
Nawaz Sharif was not named in the Panama Papers; nor is there any evidence that he abused public office for private gain. He was indicted on grounds of hiding assets (not declaring income from salary not collected from UAE-based firm, Capital FZE, during exile in Saudi Arabia), while filing nomination papers for the 2013 election. The judges admonished him for not being “honest” under Section 12(2) of the Representation of the People Act, 1976.
It was only after dismissing Sharif that the court ordered the National Accountability Bureau to file corruption cases against the Sharif family on the basis of evidence collected by the court-appointed Joint Investigation Team (JIT). Logically, the JIT report should have led to the filing of cases and due process of law. But here the cart was put before the horse.
Such judicial awkwardness is not without precedent. In June 2012, a bench led by the then Chief Justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, convicted and disqualified Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani of the Pakistan People’s Party for contempt, for ignoring a court order to reopen a dormant corruption inquiry against President Asif Ali Zardari. The real reason, Pakistanis felt, was that Gilani openly criticised the military as “a state within a state” after Osama bin Laden was found hiding in the cantonment town of Abbottabad for six years before the US eliminated him in May 2011. There are many examples of the judiciary favouring the generals over elected Prime Ministers.
July’s ruling follows a judgment of April 20 on a petition filed by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party leader, Imran Khan, who is close to the military establishment. The majority (Justices Asif Saeed Khan Khosa and Gulzar Ahmed dissented) ruled that the issues pertained to certain assets owned by the Sharif family, and whether his minor children had the means in the early 1990s to purchase property abroad.
Under this judgement, the judges set up a JIT to be headed by a senior officer of the Federal Investigation Agency, with representatives from the National Accountability Bureau, Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan, State Bank of Pakistan, and an officer each to be nominated by the Director General of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and military intelligence. The judges approved each nomination; one member allegedly had close ties to Imran Khan’s party. Many Pakistanis found the inclusion of intelligence officers for investigating financial crimes unacceptable.
The JIT report, submitted on July 10, reported that the Sharif family owned wealth and assets disproportionate to their known sources of income. On July 28, a reconstituted five judge Bench comprising Justices Asif Saeed Khan Khosa, Ejaz Afzal Khan, Gulzar Ahmed, Sheikh Azmat Saeed and Ijaz ul Ahsan, unanimously declared Sharif unfit for public office.
Many Pakistanis believe Sharif was ousted for trying to assert civilian authority over the military, seeking peace with India and Afghanistan, and urging the ISI to stop using militant groups as tools of foreign policy.
The challenge before Sharif now is to preserve the unity of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and preserve its majority in the National Assembly (188/342) before the general election in 2018. His nominee, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, was elected Prime Minister on August 2, and it remains to be seen if Shahbaz Sharif is eventually made Prime Minister, as this could enable him to launch his own dynasty, nudging the Nawaz branch aside. Abbasi promptly met Chinese Ambassador, Sun Weidong on August 4 and promised full support to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
However, Pakistan’s internal developments have cast a shadow over the CPEC that passes through territory belonging to the erstwhile kingdom of Maharaja Hari Singh, and illegally held by Pakistan after the 1947-48 war. Can Abbasi, or indeed anyone else, ensure the security of roads running through the restive Gilgit Baltistan and Balochistan provinces, and will it ever be possible to lay railway tracks along the CPEC route?
More pertinently, can the slowing Chinese economy deliver all the promised projects within the stipulated timeframe? Present indications suggest all is not well, even as Sri Lanka’s virtual surrender of the Hambantota port creates awareness that Chinese loans could easily become albatrosses round the neck of partner Governments.
Dawn issued a grim warning immediately after the Border Roads Initiative summit in Beijing in May. Given the numerous projects signed by Islamabad, one shudders to think what its default would look like. These problems will now have to be faced by the generals almost directly.
Beijing has become anxious about the fate of CPEC with Nawaz Sharif’s exit, especially as Pakistan is still debating whether to first develop the eastern or western route, or both simultaneously. The eastern route moves along populous and relatively prosperous areas, including Punjab province, and connects Islamabad with other major Pakistani cities; the western route cuts through backward areas like Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces. The CPEC could become even more uncertain if the 2018 election brings another party to power, which could lead to a review of some projects’ negotiation processes and conditions.
For India, the increased hold of the Pakistan military over civilian institutions has made things more difficult for citizen, Kulbhushan Jadhav, arrested in uncertain circumstances, condemned as a spy and sentenced to death on April 10. Denied even consular access, India appealed to the International Court of Justice and on May 18, the 11-member ICJ unanimously ruled that Pakistan should not execute Jadhav till the final decision of the court.
However, Pakistan continues to deny consular access, and has not responded to Jadhav’s mother’s visa application. Pakistan had told the ICJ that Jadhav would probably not be executed before August. The situation is fraught with danger.
(The writer is a political analyst and an independent researcher)
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