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Deciphering Pakistan Supreme Court’s Panama Papers Verdict

 
 

On April 20, the Supreme Court (SC) of Pakistan in its Panama Papers case verdict announced that there was not enough evidence to disqualify the country’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who has been the direct target of a year long trial after documents from Mossack Fonseca showed his family’s overseas dealings.

The court in its final verdict said that the evidence presented before the SC needed a further probe. The court has ordered the formation of a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) to further investigate the evidence. The JIT is tasked with presenting its final report before the court within two months. Moreover, the five member bench, which was divided 3-2 over the decision, revealed that various investigative bodies, including the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) and the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), had failed to cooperate with the investigation.

Apparently, Sharif and his immediate family have survived in the ruling, for no part of the verdict directly declares them guilty. On the other hand, the opposition parties, particularly the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), do not appear to have been offered any face-saving result in the verdict. On the whole, the court’s decision to form the JIT to investigate the case further is being seen as clever ploy to stall the case which, like all previously formed JITs, will fall into obscurity.

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In essence, with the evidence that was offered the court, the decision could not have been fairer. The opposition parties evidence was by and large based on the data that could hardly justify the removal of a sitting Prime Minister. While the opposition parties may have desired a decision that disqualifies the incumbent Prime Minister, the court’s decision proves its inability to prove the matter in detail due to a wide range of bureaucratic and political handicaps.

Beyond the general realm of law and justice, the court’s decision would reinforce the ruling party’s moral legitimacy which perhaps was the only factor at play as far as the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz’s political interests are concerned.

For the PTI, which has played a leading role in formulating the entire anti corruption campaign, the decision is nothing less than a political defeat. Heading up to the next general elections, Imran Khan, the head of the PTI, has banked his entire political agenda on the case whose verdict has just been announced.

Now in the short run, the PTI appears to be on the side that has lost the case as well as its entire campaign agenda. However, if followed carefully, the next phase of the case can prove strategically beneficial for PTI. So far, what we have known about the PTI is that the party’s leadership has the ability to build sustained pressure and keep any issue alive that it goes after regardless of the political fallout.

Unlike other JITs whose fate remained unresolved, the SC’s verdict on the Panama Papers case is likely to reach its conclusion. The JIT would comprise officials from the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Military Intelligence (MI), NAB, FIA, and the State Bank of Pakistan. The two judges that ruled in favor of the prime minister’s disqualification are next in line to replace the current chief justice of Pakistan. Given the assortment of stakeholders in the JIT and likely street, media, and political pressure that the PTI can generate, the manipulation of the case is not likely to happen easily. The next two months could see the reversal of the current decision, with Sharif facing dire consequences.

Contrary to the perception that the court’s decision has not harmed the prime minister’s standing, the verdict has done exactly the opposite. In essence, with the split decision of guilty or not guilty, the court’s ruling indicates that that the prime minister cannot be absolved unless the presented evidence is completely probed. Moreover, the formation of the JIT shows that there is enough proof to explore the case further. The court’s orders compelling the prime minister and his sons to appear before the JIT that comprises of the country’s bureaucracy and security agencies should be embarrassing enough for the ruling party.

Without a doubt, the SC’s verdict in the Panama Papers case has opened another episode of controversy, which is likely to remain a highlight in the country’s politics for the coming months.

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