In a turn of fortunes, and for some a rightful reset of justice, the Islamabad High Court (IHC) has acquitted PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif in the Avenfield Apartments reference case.The high court had also recently acquitted Maryam Nawaz and her husband Captain (r) Muhammad Safdar in the same reference. To many – both in the PML-N and independent legal observers – what had transpired in the Avenfield case in 2018 was a mockery of justice and the case had over the past years come to be seen as part of an aggressive anti-Sharif family campaign led by NAB, which eventually paved the way to the House of Sharif contesting the 2018 elections on a backfoot, weakened and broken for the most part.
The verdict can also be seen as yet another look at the way NAB had used weak and barely-there cases to gun for those out of favour with the previous PTI government.
The Avenfield legal saga had become a focal point of political intrigue, legal scrutiny, and public debate. At the heart of the matter was Nawaz Sharif and his family’s ownership of luxury apartments in the upscale Avenfield House in London, the case having had far-reaching implications, impacting not only the political landscape of Pakistan but also the discourse surrounding accountability, corruption, and rule of law. The Avenfield reference stemmed from revelations in the Panama Papers. Nawaz Sharif and his family were implicated in owning luxurious properties in London through offshore companies. On July 6, 2018 the trial court had sentenced Nawaz to 10 years in jail upon conviction along with a fine of more than one billion rupees – 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 Nawaz had been sentenced to seven years in prison with a fine, and one year for non-cooperation with NAB, while her husband was handed down a two-year rigorous imprisonment. The verdict led to Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification from holding public office, further polarizing the political landscape in Pakistan. In 2020, the IHC had declared him a proclaimed offender in the case.
The Avenfield case has not been without its controversies, with the PML-N and its supporters consistently arguing that the legal process was politically motivated, pointing to how Nawaz Sharif’s political career was dealt a severe blow, leading to a leadership vacuum within his party. The PML-N had alleged that Project Imran was launched to remove the Sharifs from the power equation in the country, that fake cases were made against PML-N leaders, that trumped-up charges were levelled, and that politicians were thrown behind bars on baseless or weak cases only because Imran Khan had to be brought into power one way or the other. Nawaz, say his supporters, has been vindicated with this IHC ruling. While there are some more cases to go, political analysts feel the winds are blowing in his favour.
Beyond the political ramifications, the Avenfield case also led to increasing concerns about the potential misuse of legal mechanisms for political ends, serving as a reminder of the delicate balance between justice, politics, and the imperative to build strong institutions for a robust democracy. Another important reminder is that none of this should take away from any real effort at the accountability process: one without vendetta and political witch hunts. Can we expect our current in-favour political parties to remember that trumped-up charges against anyone only lead to more injustice? And what about all those who had been instrumental in building such weak cases in the past, including those holding media trials on the Avenfield reference? Will there ever be a reckoning or are we doomed to go around in circles, no political party or figure learning any lessons from their own experiences? One would think the Avenfield reference and other such cases would serve as cautionary tales against politically motivated accountability. But, given today’s political environment, one may be accused of wishful thinking.
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