The verdict delivered by the Accountability Court, meting out a ten-year jail sentence to Nawaz Sharif, a seven-year sentence to Maryam Nawaz and one year to Captain Safdar does not seem to have come as much of a surprise to most observers. Politically fraught as it is, the judgment has however already led to fierce debates among legal analysts. The crux of the case was the ownership of the Avenfield flats by Nawaz’s sons Hassan and Hussain and where the money to pay for these properties came from. The Sharif family maintained that the flats were gifted by Nawaz’s father to his grandchildren and had been paid for through investments in Qatar while the prosecution maintained that they were the proceeds of illicit income. The conviction rests on Section 9(a)(iv) of the National Accountability Ordinance, dealing with assets disproportionate to known sources of income. The judgment explains that this put the burden of proof on the defendants to show evidence that the flats were purchased with declared income. This assertion has been criticised by some legal analysts who believe that the legal dictum of treating a defendant as innocent until proven guilty should always be followed. That the Sharifs were not given the presumption of innocence, according to these analysts, could render the verdict suspect.
Maryam Nawaz’s conviction is based on the document she submitted in court which was suspected of being a forgery because it used a font that was not in wide circulation at the time the document was supposedly drawn up. Here too, legal experts have questioned if the proof was strong enough to justify such a harsh punishment. It has also been pointed out that the suggestion from the accountability court that the Avenfield properties be confiscated by the Pakistan government is essentially impossible to enforce given that no agreement on this count exists between Islamabad and London. For now, a series of appeals and further court rulings lie ahead.
While debates over the verdict continue, its political impact is already being felt. Nawaz and Maryam, in a fiery post-verdict press conference, have said that they are both ready to return to the country, reportedly next Friday. They have also vowed to continue their fight. But even if they do return, it will be difficult to keep control of the PML-N from prison. Official party chief Shahbaz Sharif, in a separate press conference immediately after the verdict, insisted that the country would give its verdict on Election Day but rumours of a split between the brothers are rife and will only have gained steam by Shahbaz’s rather subdued and dispassionate body language when he spoke about the verdict. The significance of this will become clearer in the days ahead. The fact is that a new political – and judicial – history of Pakistan is being written right in front of our eyes. The accountability court’s decision is a landmark judgment in the political history of the country. It could strengthen the democratic system or weaken it depending on whose narrative we hear. The PML-N has repeatedly stated that it believes there is a conspiracy to ensure that it is not returned to power on July 25. It could use this verdict as evidence of this. Whether the PML-N benefits from a massive wave of sympathy or whether it is punished by voters as it falls apart in front of them is something only the coming days will tell.