AN END TO #PANAMAGATE?

by Bakhtiar Qayyum

Questions remain about the spectacular wealth amassed by the Sharif family. At least eight offshore companies were found to have links to the Sharif family in the documents that were leaked. It is alleged that Nawaz Sharif had bought properties in London by laundering money earned through corruption.

The Panama Leaks scandal has almost reached a dead end, beyond which it will not be possible to proceed without being punched or squeezed from one side or the other. Setting up a Joint Investigating Team (JIT) comprising of personnel from investigating agencies which were accused of inaction, inefficiency and negligence by the Supreme Court Bench and expecting them to probe the Prime Minister’s offshore assets with diligence is like asking for the moon.

The Supreme Court Special Bench offered exclusive daily hearings to the high-profile case for almost a month, went through thousands of documents, entertained scores of witnesses and heard marathon arguments by eminent lawyers but failed to arrive at a consensus decision. Earlier another bench of the Supreme Court had heard the same case for months but abruptly closed all proceedings without pronouncing any verdict when the Honorable Chief Justice went on his pre-retirement farewell leave. And now seven government officials of lower cadre are being tasked to clean the house…

The split judgment was announced with such wisdom that both sides started beating the drum of victory; the Sharif supporters for the Prime Minister not being un-seated and the opponents for his not getting a clean chit of being honest and trustworthy. The anti-Sharif camp was happy that none of the judges of the Supreme Court Bench accepted the arguments put up by the lawyers of the Sharif family and therefore claimed a unanimous moral victory. But the moral ascendency has no bearing in Pakistani politics.

The Joint Investigating Team (JIT) ordered by the court stands at a much lower level of authority when compared to the highest judiciary in the country. All members of the JIT belong to departments subordinate to the Ministry of the Interior and the Prime Minister and are all subject to the arm-twisting so notoriously exercised by members of the sitting government.
During the proceedings of the Panama case before the Supreme Court Bench, the Sharif loyalists exploited the civilian-military rift to their great advantage. It was to convey the impression that the Panama leaks, charges of corruption, money-laundering and holding undeclared assets abroad were merely the results of the civil-military rupture in the country and not based on facts.

As a prelude to the verdict of the Panama case, some unnecessary noise was created over the Dawn Leaks dispute between the civilian government and the army. The Dawn Leaks related to a story published in Dawn newspaper about a high-level meeting in which the Army was accused of propping up what are now called terrorist groups. The Army reacted very sternly and asked for a probe. As usual a commission was set up to investigate the matter. Consequent to the recommendation of the commission few heads rolled but the publication of the story or its authenticity was not contested by the representatives of the government. The Army rejected the actions taken by the government but, after a meeting of the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) and the Director-General of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) with the Prime Minister, all objections were retracted and the matter was taken to have been amicably resolved between the army and the civilian government . The report of the commission on the Dawn Leaks has not been made public, though there are rising voices in Parliament and outside demanding publication without delay.

The negotiated but undisclosed conclusion of the Dawn Leaks points towards a new turn in the civilian-military row. This is now bent upon gaining more ground for the civilian government. The Panama case could equally be buried under the carpet, apparently to allow for more attention to be paid to the still-contentious issues being faced by the country. To be more specific, those same issues which started more than a year ago after millions of documents were leaked from the secret records of Panamanian law firm, Mossack Fonseca, and, after which, scores of Government heads around the world either stepped down or presented themselves for in-depth scrutiny, while in Pakistan the same were refuted for a claimed lack of sufficient evidence to charge the family of the Prime Minister for any wrong-doing.

The reprieve given to the family of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif by the Supreme Court in the Panama Leaks case has provided immunity to some 300 other Pakistanis, whose names appeared in the Leaks for holding undeclared properties, offshore accounts and companies. No investigating agency or government department has asked any questions regarding these companies and properties. Even if the JIT arrives at some incriminating conclusion, after going through the record of the assets of the Sharif family, it would not be enough to initiate prosecution against others whose names appeared in the Panama Leaks. Even the complaining parties, the Tehreek-e-Insaf of Imran Khan, the Jamaat-e-Islami of Siraj ul Haq and the Awami Muslim League of Sheikh Rashid have not attached high hopes to the expected conclusions of the JIT. They have all kicked off their own election campaigns for the 2018 General Elections in the country.

The author is the Islamabad Bureau Chief of LAFZ Magazine. He is a retired officer.