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June 15, 2021

Of politicians arraigned by NAB, only Asif, Khursheed in prison

June 15, 2021

ISLAMABAD: Of the senior opposition politicians detained by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) on various charges over the past few years, only two prominent elected leaders are still in custody on judicial remand and have petitioned the superior courts for the grant of bail.

The two still in custody are parliamentary leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) in the National Assembly Khawaja Asif and noted stalwart of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Syed Khursheed Shah. Their production orders have never been issued by Speaker Asad Qaisar to allow them to attend sessions of the lower house of parliament. The two outspoken members of parliament face identical charges levelled by the anti-graft agency: assets beyond known and legitimate sources of income.

A decision on the bail plea of Khawaja Asif, who has been behind bars for the past six months, has faced delays because three division benches of the Lahore High Court (LHC) had to be dissolved after the recusal of a member of the panel. The bail request was filed nearly three months ago on March 27.

When the bail application was taken up by the LHC bench last time, Justice Asjad Javed Ghural recused himself from hearing it. The matter was referred to the LHC chief justice for the constitution of a new panel. The new bench headed by Justice Alia Neelum and comprising Justice Syed Shehbaz Ali Rizvi will hear the plea on Wednesday. Since his arrest, Khawaja Asif has not publicly uttered even a word during his court appearances while Khursheed Shah has spoken to the media a couple of times. Both are in jail on judicial remand.

The PML-N leader’s physical remand with NAB was short-lived as the accountability judge had refused to extend it despite the insistent demand of the NAB prosecutor. Khawaja Asif remained in NAB custody for just 22 days, which is rare as the anti-corruption watchdog usually keeps the accused in custody for an average of three months -- the maximum time allowed by the National Accountability Ordinance (NAO), 1999. He was detained on December 29, 2020 and was sent on judicial remand on January 22 this year. The NAB had called for further custody of the accused on the grounds that the investigation was still incomplete and that the suspect had not cooperated during the probe. However, Khawaja Asif’s counsel argued that his client had appeared 25 to 30 times, in person and through lawyers, before the combined investigation teams of NAB in Lahore and Rawalpindi, has furnished all records to NAB and there was no need to extend his custody. He pleaded that during his client’s 22-day physical remand, NAB had not confronted the accused with any evidence which could prove that he owned assets disproportionate to his known sources of income. “What if the accused does not tell you anything for 50 years? Should the court allow you to keep him for so many years,” Presiding Judge Jawadul Hassan had asked the prosecutor. Meanwhile, Khursheed Shah is currently the longest serving NAB detainee as he has been in prison for 21 months. He was arrested on September 18, 2019. He had been granted bail by the Sukkur accountability court but it was instantly dismissed by the Sindh High Court (SHC) Circuit Bench Sukkur on March 5, 2020, which stated that the subordinate court did not have the mandate to give bail.

The PPP leader appealed against the SHC decision in the Supreme Court, which on June 6 disposed of the matter after Khursheed Ahmed Shah withdrew his plea. His counsel did not press his plea because he intended to present a new bail petition before the SHC raising fresh grounds such as delay in the trial, hardship etc.

The apex court remanded the matter to the SHC with the direction to decide the case within a month and said Khursheed Shah’s lawyer may raise issues like the delay in trial, merit and hardship in the SHC.

The NAB investigation officer (IO) told the Supreme Court that investigations have been completed and soon an interim reference would be filed against Khursheed Shah and other accused. Justice Sardar Tariq Masood, however, inquired whether the IO knows the outcome of an interim reference. “Interim reference means that a new indictment will be made followed by a retrial. Commencement of a retrial after two years means ensuring the accused bail on the basis of hardship. The main purpose of adopting such measures by NAB is aimed at giving relief to the accused persons.”