LONDON/LAHORE: The London High Court Friday ruled in favour of PML-N President Shahbaz Sharif and his son-in-law Ali Imran Yousaf in relation to the meaning of reporter David Rose’s article published on 14 July 2019, alleging that Shahbaz and his son-in-law were involved in money-laundering and embezzlement of the British money meant for Pakistan’s poor people.
Justice Sir Matthew Nicklin ruled that Mail on Sunday’s article carried the highest level of defamatory meaning for both Shahbaz Sharif and Ali Imran Yousaf.
The Daily Mail had contested that the words used in the article were not defamatory but the judge ruled that the level of defamation to Shahbaz Sharif was Chase level 1 – the highest form of defamation in English law – on all counts raised by Sharif’s lawyers in their arguments and Ali Imran Yousaf’s defamation was Chase Level 1 in one instance and Chase Level 2 in another.
In ordinary meaning, the judge meant that the paper declared both of them guilty of corruption (Level 1 - The perception from the article would be that he is guilty. Highest level of defamation; Level 2- He may be guilty of it and there are reasonable grounds; Level 3 - He may be guilty and it requires investigation).
The court heard arguments from lawyers from all sides about David Rose’s article – ‘Did the family of Pakistani politician who has become the poster boy for British overseas aid STEAL funds meant for earthquake victims, asks David Rose’ – which has made headlines in Pakistan for two years.
The Associated Newspapers Limited (publishers of Mail on Sunday and Daily Mail) had disputed the defamatory meaning seeking to downplay it.
Sir Matthew said the article effectively declared Mr Sharif guilty in the following words: “Mr Sharif was party to and the principal beneficiary of the money laundering of tens of millions of Pounds which represented the proceeds of his embezzlement whilst he was the chief minister of the Province of Punjab, of substantial sums of British public money that had been paid to the province in Department for International Development (DFID) grant aid and other corrupt payments received in the form of kickbacks or commission from government run projects.”
It is this ruling on the meaning by Sir Nicklin that the newspaper will have to now defend if the case goes to the trial.
Carter Ruck released a short statement on behalf of Shahbaz Sharif soon after the judgment. It quoted Shahbaz Sharif as saying, “Mr Sharif said this is the first step towards clearing my name from the Mail on Sunday’s false allegations which should never have been published.”
The lawyer, Andrew Caldecott QC told the judge that Daily Mail “concedes” that there were no money-laundering allegations against Shahbaz but his family members. The Daily Mail lawyer said, “Actual detailed evidence against Shahbaz Sharif is pretty limited, based on assumptions but his luxurious house is relied on”.
Rejecting arguments of Daily Mail’s lawyer, Justice Nicklin ruled an ordinary reader in Britain would have understood the meaning to be establishing that Shahbaz Sharif was involved in corruption, embezzlement in the Earthquake Rehabilitation Authority (ERRA) and DFID funds as well as money-laundering. He said in the natural and ordinary of the article, the claimant was declared guilty at Chase level 1.
Justice Mathhew Nicklin remarked at the start of the hearing that he has read the material put before him by both Daily Mail and Shahbaz Sharif’s lawyers. However, Justice Nicklin said he was aware that there were proceedings in Pakistan involving Shahbaz Sharif but he had "deliberately read nothing about proceedings in Pakistan because that’s not for me to read or know. I would rather not know what’s happening in Pakistan.”
The Mail lawyer extensively quoted a statement by Shahzad Akbar, PM Imran Khan’s advisor, stating the money-laundering investigation has started in Pakistan, that large sums of monies have been found and that DFID funds were embezzled. The lawyer also read excerpts of the article related to “cash boys”, "poppadom men”
He said, “The investigation is now moving on in Pakistan to find the source of these funds. This investigation is far from complete and daily Mail has very limited information. Having established the scale of money laundering, the investigation is now moving to the next phase.”
Adrienne Page QC, appearing for Shahbaz Sharif, told the judge that the Daily Mail article illustrated connections between Shahbaz Sharif and the UK government and then alleged that the former Punjab chief minister was involved in corruption of UK taxpayers’ money. She took the court through the whole article and said the article was defamatory from start till the end – lacking evidence but making baseless allegations of fraud and money laundering.
“The Daily Mail article implicated the former chief minister Punjab Shahbaz Sharif as involved in suspected theft of UK taxpayers money. That was hugely damaging and shamed Mr Sharif in the eyes of the British readers and to readers in Pakistan, a country which benefits hugely from the UK's aid to its country. The suggestion that his administration was involved in stealing the UK’s money was a grave allegation.”
Adrienne Page QC told the court that the Daily Mail article declared that Shahbaz Sharif was “guilty of corruption” and “beneficiary of the laundered money from Britain. The allegation of laundered money was conveyed as a fact in the article. Whose money has been stolen? Money laundering is a criminal misconduct but who was victimized and where is the proof? Where is the stolen money? Where is the evidence? Where’s the evidence of kickbacks and misappropriation?”
She said Shahbaz Sharif’ son denied the allegations of money-laundering and corruption but the paper used statements by Shahzad Akbar and Transparency International to slander her client.
"The headlines, the captions, the buildup of the article, Mail on Sunday’s campaign against overseas funding, end of the article. This was all defamatory. This is the heart of it all that that claimant is a beneficiary of the laundered money," she told the court.
Barrister Victoria Simon-Shore appeared for Shahbaz Sharif’s son-in-law Imran Ali Yousaf. She told the court that her client rejected all allegations of corruption, misuse of funds and money laundering. She said the allegation in the article that Imran Ali Yousaf “mysteriously accumulated” money due to the fact that his in-laws were in power was far from the truth.
Justice Nicklin held that a connection with UK aid was emphasised throughout the article in all aspects and it would be very difficult for the reader to conclude how much UK money was embezzled.
David Rose said in a tweet after the judgment went on Pakistani media: “The Shahbaz Sharif defamation case is strictly preliminary. The judgment sets the parameters for the eventual trial, which lies in the future: it determines what the court says the article means. It is NOT a final outcome.”
Shahzad Akbar said in a tweet: “Today’s hearing in London was a ‘meanings hearing’ where the judge was to rule what the article meant. Shahbaz and Ali Imran have NOT WON the case against Daily Mail. The judge made similar remark when he refused to award costs to any party.”
Ali Raza adds from Lahore: Commenting on the development, PML-N Secretary Information Marriyum Aurangzeb said the decision of the British court was a resounding slap on Imran Khan’s face that exposed his vicious witch-hunt against the PML-N leadership.
In a statement, she said the court not only shot down the malicious propaganda by the imposed government through the Daily Mail, but also eviscerated the false narrative against Shahbaz Sharif in its entirety and had vindicated him.
She demanded that the government should stop embarrassing itself and must release Shahbaz Sharif from the abduction of what she called NAB-Niazi Alliance.
She said if the rulers had an ounce of integrity left in them they should withdraw all of their fictitious, baseless cases motivated by political victimization, vengeance and prejudice against the PML-N president.