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August 19, 2018

Having rushed to prosecute Sharifs, NAB goes slow on appeals


August 19, 2018

ISLAMABAD: The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) deployed a two-speed legal strategy during court hearings pertaining to the accountability cases against Nawaz Sharif, the ousted and incarcerated prime minister, his daughter Maryam and her spouse Capt. (Retd.) Muhammad Safdar, court records show.

While seeking their conviction, the NAB has proceeded at full steam to obtain a conviction. When responding to the Sharifs’ appeals, however, it appeared to run out of steam.

At the accountability court which ultimately convicted and imprisoned the three, the NAB pushed hard to quickly obtain a judgment. On various occasions, its prosecutor Sardar Muzaffar Abbasi even accused the defence lawyers of dragging their feet to forestall an early conclusion to the cases, which were heard on a day-to-day basis.

However, at no stage did the Sharifs’ attorneys actually seek an adjournment, a fact which was acknowledged by the Supreme Court after lead defence counsel Khawaja Haris pointed out that he had never requested the postponement of the accountability court’s proceedings because he wanted the cases to be dealt with promptly.

In its July 28, 2017 verdict, the Supreme Court granted six weeks to the NAB to prepare and submit the references against the Sharifs for hearing. The anti-graft watchdog subsequently adhered to the deadline.

The apex court originally instructed the accountability court to decide the cases within six months, but it was unable to wrap up the references within this timeframe. The monitoring judge granted three subsequent extensions totaling some four months to facilitate the verdict.

The NAB produced its witnesses before the accountability court in rapid succession, while Judge Muhammad Bashir worked to fast-track the disposal of the cases. However, it took the court about nine months to convict the Sharifs in the case, the only one to be decided thus far.

Khawaja Haris filed appeals in the Islamabad High Court (IHC) against this decision in mid-July. Generally, such pleas involving imprisoned appellants are heard without delay, and there is even greater urgency when a female convict is involved. However, the NAB prosecutor procrastinated during the hearing of the Sharifs’ appeals by the IHC. This was especially evident from Abbasi’s efforts on Thursday to attain an adjournment from Justice Athar Minallah and Justice Miangul Hassan Aurangzeb, who were reluctant to oblige.

More than an hour was consumed by this discussion before the judges agreed to put off the hearing till Monday, with the proviso that the NAB prosecutor provide a written paragraph-by-paragraph rejoinder to the defenc e lawyers’ submissions by Saturday and conclude his arguments on Monday.

The IHC bench evidently was unimpressed with the NAB prosecutor’s failure to provide written counterpoints to the defence counsels’ arguments, despite the passage of month. “You have wasted the time of the court and are seeking adjournment without any reason; what should we write in our order?” the bench said to Abbasi, who contended he could not proceed unless granted time to obtain further instructions from the NAB.

Having taken up the appeals, the bench decided that the Sharifs’ lawyers would complete their arguments in a single day, Wednesday, which they did. It directed the NAB prosecutor to follow suit on Thursday, but he baulked and succeeded in obtaining the adjournment, adding to the delays affecting the case.

Eminent constitutional expert Wasim Sajjad told The News it was standard practice for lawyers to seek an adjournment from the concerned bench. At times, lawyers may request a postponement on the grounds that they need to seek fresh instructions from their employers or private clients. “The courts see whether the request is reasonable or not,” he said.

Before the instant panel took up the appeals, one bench after bench was dissolved because of the non-availability of judges, who proceeded on pre-scheduled annual summer vacations. So lawyers’ eyebrows were raised by the court’s priorities when it took up the pleas of the three convicts. These pertained to the transfer of two pending references against the Sharifs, the granting of bail, and the suspension of the accountability court judge.

Resuming hearings of these pleas on July 31, an “instant” two-judge IHC panel resumed decided to adjudicate upon the issue of shifting the references to another accountability court, rather than first hearing the bail applications.

“Normally, bail matters are heard by courts first because of the accused or convicts being in the jail,” Sajjad said. “In the instant case, the convicts voluntarily surrendered themselves to the law in the wake of their sentencing.”

The Sharifs’ appeals were lodged three days after the return Nawaz Sharif and Maryam to Pakistan from London on July 14 to court arrest. Justice Mohsin Akhtar Kayani and Justice Miangul Hassan Aurangzeb held preliminary proceedings on July 17 and passed an order requiring that the petitions be heard the following week. However, Justice Kayani then proceeded on his scheduled holiday, in effect dissolving the bench.

Another bench comprising Justice Aamer Farooq and Justice Miangul Hassan Aurangzeb then heard the pleas. At the very first hearing, the bench announced it would first take up the plea seeking the transfer of the references to another accountability court and accepted the defence team‘s submission after a week’s proceedings. But then Justice Farooq went on his scheduled holiday, which he had slightly postponed to hear the case, and the second bench also stood broken.

The IHC roster currently comprises Justice Minallah, Justice Farooq, Justice Kayani and Justice Aurangzeb. Chief Justice Muhammad Anwar Kasi, who assigns judges to hear cases, has not involved himself or the next most senior IHC judge, Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui, in the Sharifs’ appeals.

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