ISLAMABAD: Will Accountability Court Islamabad-I Judge Muhammad Bashir hand his verdicts in the four references against ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif, Maryam, Hussain, Hassan, and former finance minister Ishaq Dar before expiry of his term on March 12 this year?
The judge will go after serving his present three-year term as the presiding officer of this court. On March 3, 2015 he got three years’ extension in the same position. In its July 28 judgment that disqualified Nawaz Sharif, the Supreme Court directed that the accountability court shall proceed and decide the four references within a period of six months from the date of their filing.
The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) submitted these references with the accountability court on September 2017, setting off the countdown, which completes on March 8 this year. However, most courts generally take more time than specified by the law or a superior court judgment in view of the pace of the proceedings.
The instant references are exclusively based on the voluminous report of the Panama Joint Investigation Team (JIT) as directed by the apex court. The Sharif family and Dar have refused to appear before the corruption buster for investigation dubbing the process biased and violative of the National Accountability Ordinance, 1999.
The post of the judge of the second accountability court of the federal capital has been lying vacant since October 16, 2017 when Nisar Baig was repatriated to the subordinate judiciary in the Punjab. He had also vacated the office after completing his three-year tenure.
If Judge Muhammad Bashir was unable to conclude the hearings into the four references before the expiry of his term, the next man replacing him will continue the proceedings, a prominent lawyer said. “It is not necessary that the new judge will start the trial process afresh as he will have all the record of testimonies of witnesses and arguments of lawyers before him to reach a conclusion.”
Section 5A of the NAO says a judicial official, who is a serving district and sessions judge, shall hold office for a period of three years from the date of his initial appointment as the presiding officer of accountability court. An incumbent judge who on the April 24, 2001, is not a serving district and sessions judge and has exercised option to serve as a judge shall continue for a period of three years from the date of his initial appointment as such judge. An incumbent judge who is a serving district and sessions judge and retires while serving as such judge shall, subject to his option, continue for a period of three years from the date of his initial appointment as such judge. A judge shall not be removed or transferred from his office before the completion of the term with his office without consultation of the high court chief justice concerned.
Under the relevant rules, accountability court judges are appointed by the president of Pakistan in consultation with the chief justice of the high court concerned to hold office for three years. The federal law ministry considers a panel of three judicial officers sent to it by a high court chief justice and routes the summary to the president through the prime minister for issuance of notification.
It is not the first time that Judge Muhammad Bashir is hearing unprecedentedly high-profile cases involving leading politicians. Earlier, he had heard five references - ARY Gold, SGS, Cotecna, Polo Ground and Ursus Tractors - against former president and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) chief Asif Ali Zardari, and acquitted him.
In December 2014, Judge Muhammad Bashir exonerated Zardari in the Ursus Tractors and ARY Gold references. The same year on May 28, he had acquitted him in the polo ground reference.
He had accepted Zardari’s pleas under Section 265-K of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), which empowers a judge to acquit an accused when there is no sufficient evidence against him. He had held that Zardari was not proved guilty.
In November, 2015, Judge Muhammad Bashir had given a clean chit to Zardari in the SGS-Cotecna, which pertained to the award of pre-shipment contracts. He ruled that the NAB was unable to provide solid evidence and that the documentation presented in court was incomplete and in the form of photocopies rather than original documents.
The sixth and last reference against Zardari was the only case that was not decided by Islamabad’s accountability court but was adjudicated upon by Judge Khalid Mehmood Ranjha of a Rawalpindi court who had acquitted him in the illegal assets case.