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Sunday May 19, 2024

Panama verdict: Dreams that shattered

By Umar Cheema
September 28, 2017

ISLAMABAD: A week after Mian Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification, I received an email from an ICIJ colleague in Europe. He congratulated me for the consequential story on the Panama Papers. Then he made a request that put me in an awkward situation.

He wished to interview me that I was hesitant to give. He wanted to credit me for bringing down the prime minister that I was reluctant to take due to the way it was done. He thought the world must know the power of journalism which I believed too. But there are other powers at work in country like Pakistan is what he missed. 

I would have happily granted the interview had he approached me soon after the verdict. There was a flood of greetings on social media acknowledging my role throughout the episode. I was privileged to break this fateful story in Pakistan as part of the Panama Papers team. My social media wall was inundated with public outpouring. I was humbled and overwhelmed.  

But when I started reading the verdict, the euphoria dissipated. There were high hopes from the court. It had promised a decision to be remembered for decades. Many thought the judges would hand a verdict that no saner mind could question on merit. That the Sharif family would be left with no excuse to portray itself as a victim, was yet another expectation. 

However, that much-awaited verdict was not only contrary to expectations, it lacked merit as well. It was thought to be based on reasoning instead of heresay. More so, the bench that handed the verdict comprised judges known for rising above personal biases. However, the reading of the verdict was a rude shock. The decision itself, according to Cyril Almeida, was found in search of reasoning. It though sent the prime minister home, the verdict provided him enough fodder to plead innocence in the court of public.  

The case started from the Panama Papers culminated at the Iqama of UAE. Nawaz Sharif was disqualified for not declaring the salary which he claimed having never received as Chairman of the Capital FZE. The learned judges thought it was receivable, no matter he didn’t get it. The benefit of doubt, according to criminal jurisprudence, goes to the accused. That benefit was denied which made it a unique case. 

Why the prime minister was sent home on a frivolous matter when a credible case could have been built through the Panama Papers revelation? The Sharif family was already running short of explanations. Why the court was in haste when the bench hearing the case was in control of everything right from its investigation to prosecution? Nobody can dare ask them. 

However, the process started becoming questionable after the Whatsapp calls were made to the heads of SECP and SBP for the choice officer. This could have been done through official channel as the court was justified in appointing the investigators it trusted.  

The induction of ISI and MI officers in financial investigation and the objectionable conduct of the JIT under control of the agencies raised further suspicions. More so, because the officers conducted DawnLeaks inquiry which dealt a severe blow to the government, were chosen for this task. The decision of giving administrative control of the JIT to ISI raised many eyebrows. Who leaked picture of Hussain Nawaz appearance before investigators was never explained despite promise.   

Did the khakis play any role in the ouster of the prime minister? We don’t have any evidence to establish the involvement of establishment like the judges didn’t have evidence to prove that Nawaz Sharif was receiving salary but nevertheless disqualified.  

However, the harassment of journalists voicing concerns about the fairness of trial and conduct of the JIT is indicative of the fact that there is more than what meets the eye. The emergence of sectarian and jihadi organizations in NA-120 election and inconvenience to the PML-N voters at the polling stations have left many questions unanswered.   

Holding the high and mighty is a welcome step but the way it is being done has muddled the entire accountability process. Right from the JIT's formation to disqualification of Nawaz Sharif on a petty matter and then hearing the review petition; referral of cases to NAB and the appointment of a referee judge; instruction for reopening the Hudaibiya Papers Mills case to hearing the appeal, all has been done by the three-member bench. 

How will this dispensation of justice be remembered in history? Only time will tell. However, if the ongoing debate is any guide, critics have started comparing it with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s hanging. The decision of the case is credited to other forces instead of the court. This is certainly not a compliment for the judiciary. 

So when people congratulate me on my “role in ousting” the sitting prime minister, I refuse to accept such compliments, to the disappointment of my well-wishers. I return the greeting by voicing disappointment on the way it happened. As a journalist, I’m public surrogate. We are duty-bound to watch public interest, not that of rulers.  

Every story has its default beneficiaries and victims. The Panama Papers was a great story, nay, one of the best in my career. It made me dream of the day when the prime minister would face disqualification on merit and on the basis of solid charges. However, undue haste in removing him has shattered this dream. He has emerged as a victim instead of villain due to this questionable process.