While the Panama case in the Supreme Court (SC) has wound down to a close, the proceedings on February 22 brought discomfort and embarrassment to the heads of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) and Federal Board of Revenue (FBR).
When asked a direct question by the court, NAB Chairman Qamar Zaman Chaudhry replied that he stood by his decision not to file an appeal against the Lahore High Court (LHC) March 11, 2014 verdict quashing the reference against the Sharif family in the Hudaibiya Paper Mills case. Any such appeal, he argued, would amount to a witch-hunt. The court then warned the NAB Chairman of the possible consequences flowing from his refusal, which the court found based on weak legal foundations.
It may be recalled that the Hudaibiya Paper Mills reference was initiated on the basis of the April 25, 2000 ‘confession’ of current Federal Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, in which he admitted his role in laundering Rs 1.2 billion through allegedly fake accounts abroad on behalf of the Sharifs. When the issue arose during the Panama case proceedings, the defence counsel rejected the ‘confession’ as having been obtained under duress during the tenure of the Musharraf regime.
During the case proceedings in the SC though, the NAB chief did his cause no good by foolishly attempting to justify his dogged adherence to the refusal to pursue an appeal to the SC from the LHC verdict quoted above by saying NAB was cognizant of its responsibilities and was answerable only to “the regulators”. This strange reference triggered a volley of questions and remarks from the bench, puzzled by who was meant by the ‘regulator’ and whether in fact any such creature actually existed. FBR Chairman Dr Mohammad Irshad did not fare much better before the court either.
He argued that FBR only looked after tax matters and in reference to the Panama case, had no bilateral treaty with that Latin American tax haven to be able to investigate the matter. However, he stressed, FBR had issued notices to 344 individuals named in the Panama leaks on September 2, 2016, of whom 39 turned out to be non-resident Pakistanis, 55 denied the allegations, 12 had passed away while 72 admitted owning offshore companies. Since Dr Irshad was unable to throw any light on the results of these exertions, he too came in for censure on not fulfilling his responsibility in this regard.
The grilling of these officials by the SC evoked demands from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and other opposition figures for the resignation of the NAB chief. Government ministers, however, defended Chaudhry against accusations of pro-Sharif bias by pointing out that he was appointed through a consensus between the government and the opposition.
Be that as it may, the SC faces an uphill task in delivering a verdict in the case. First and foremost, unlike Imran Khan’s assertion to fill in the lack of clinching evidence his party has been able to produce before the court, the latter is not an investigating agency. Nor indeed is the SC a trial court.
In the Panama case, as in any judicial proceedings, the court could only go by the evidence presented before it. If that proves insufficient to come to any definite conclusions, the court may have little option but to return the matter to square one by reiterating the need for a commission of inquiry to probe the complex matter and audit the money trail in question. At the very least, any such commission of inquiry must seek details of the accounts abroad mentioned in the Dar ‘confession’ to ascertain whether they genuinely exist. It will also be required to identify the account holders and ascertain whether they operated these accounts.
The judicial course may or may not point the way forward, but the case has raised troubling questions about the manner in which the Sharif business ’empire’ has conducted itself in the past.