In a major development, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) supremo Nawaz Sharif was acquitted on Wednesday in the Avenfield reference case, as the Islamabad High Court (IHC) nullified the decision of the former prime minister's conviction in the reference.
An IHC division bench comprising Chief Justice Aamer Farooq and Justice Miangul Hassan Aurangzeb announced the verdict on Nawaz' plea to overturn his conviction in the graft case.
The court also dismissed the plea filed by the National Accountability Bureau in the Flagship reference against the PML-N supremo after the accountability watchdog withdrew it.
Recently, the high court also acquitted PML-N Vice-President Maryam Nawaz and her husband Captain (retd) Muhammad Safdar in the Avenfield reference, nullifying the conviction handed to them in 2018 by an accountability court.
On July 6, 2018, the trial court sentenced Nawaz to 10 years in jail upon conviction along with a £8 million fine (approximately Rs1.3 billion), in the Avenfield corruption reference for owning assets beyond known sources of income and an additional year for not cooperating with NAB, both of them to be served concurrently.
Maryam was sentenced to seven years in prison with a fine of £2 million, and one year for non-cooperation with the bureau, while her husband was handed down two-year rigorous imprisonment.
Nawaz and his daughter, now PML-N’s chief organiser, were arrested upon their arrival in Lahore from London in July 2018.
In December same year, Nawaz got another blow as a NAB court awarded him a seven-year jail term and a fine of Rs1.5 billion in the Al-Azizia reference.
Meanwhile, the former PM filed appeals in the IHC for both convictions to be overturned. He got a major relief as the IHC ordered the release of Nawaz, Maryam and Captain Safdar while temporarily suspending the sentences awarded to them in the Avenfield reference.
While serving the sentence in the Al-Azizia case, Nawaz was diagnosed with an immune system disorder and subsequently allowed to travel abroad for treatment as per doctors' advice.
In December 2020, Nawaz was declared a “proclaimed offender” in both cases for “deliberately” not returning to the country.
As he failed to appear in the IHC during the appeals proceedings, the IHC bench headed by Justice Farooq dismissed his appeals against convictions on June 24, 2021.
Last month, Nawaz returned to the country after obtaining protective bail in both graft cases and surrendered before the court, after which his appeals were restored.
Talking to journalists outside the court after his major legal victory, Nawaz — a three-time prime minister eyeing his fourth term in next year’s general elections — said: “I had left it up to Allah. In Al-Azizia [Steel Mills corruption reference] also, I’ve also left my matters up to Allah.”
PML-N leader Azam Nazeer Tarar said that NAB had failed to present evidence against Nawaz in the Avenfield reference.
He said NAB was given ample time to prove corruption allegations and establish that Nawaz and his daughter were involved in corruption but the anti-corruption watchdog failed to present substantial evidence against the PML-N leaders.
“Nawaz Sharif stands vindicated and acquitted for lack of evidence,” he added.
When the hearing began, Nawaz’s lawyer Amjad Pervez told the court that the co-accused in the case — Maryam and Capt (retd) Safdar — were acquitted earlier this year.
“The allegations levelled against them included aiding the crime. Islamabad High Court’s acquittal of the co-accused is final,” the lawyer said, as he then read out several sections of the NAB Ordinance.
Justice Aurangzeb added that in his view, the court had acquitted the co-accused under the same NAB Ordinance sections.
“In the decision to suspend the sentence, we relied on several decisions of the Supreme Court. The decision to suspend the sentence gave the impression that the appeal was accepted.”
In response, Nawaz’s lawyer asked the court whether his client had to mention the price of the assets when they were bought when he disclosed his assets to the relevant authorities.
“NAB had to present a comparison of income and asset value After that, it had to be determined out whether the value of the assets is more than the income or not. Without this comparative assessment, making more assets than income is not a crime.”
The lawyer mentioned that there were cases in which the value of the assets was known but not the income, noting that in such cases, the court declared that the case could not be made because the income was not known.
At this, IHC CJ Farooq said the properties that Pervez’s lawyer had acquired were at separate times.
The lawyer said he could provide the dates of the purchase of these properties. “These properties were brought in between 1993-1996. These properties have no link to appellant.”
He noted that the prosecution had not linked Nawaz to the properties in its reference.
Justice Aurangzeb asked the lawyer what was the first thing that the prosecution should prove when making its case. Pervez responded that the prosecution would first have to prove that the accused is an officeholder — and he listed two more things.
“NAB was not able to prove anything. Panama verdict, JIT, and NAB investigation report did not prove Nawaz Sharif's relationship with the property,” the lawyer said.
There is nothing in the reference that proves Nawaz’s relationship with the properties, he said. Ex-FIA DG Wajid Zia, the lawyer said, also admitted that there is no evidence to prove Nawaz’s connection to the properties.
“In the indictment, it is stated that your assets are not in accordance with the declared income. However, no one was able to determine the value of the assets.
Pervez said it was NAB’s responsibility to prove that Nawaz had actually paid to acquire the property. He mentioned that the institution had to also prove that the property was either in Nawaz’s possession or a benamidars.
“But there is nothing to prove this.”
IHC CJ Justice Farooq asked whether all of this was the prosecution’s job. At this, the lawyer said, “yes”, this is the prosecution’s job.
After hearing the arguments, which went on for around two hours, the court acquitted Nawaz.
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