Thursday, November 17, 2016

Business Recorder editorial Nov 16, 2016

The Qatari connection In a surprise twist on November 14, the Sharif family’s new lawyer in the Panamagate case before the Supreme Court (SC), Mohammad Akram Sheikh, pulled a rabbit out of the hat by presenting a letter from ex-prime minister of Qatar and a member of the ruling family, Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jaber Al Thani. The letter stated that the four London flats purportedly owned by Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif’s son Hussain Sharif were the final settlement of the real estate business his late grandfather, Mian Mohammad Sharif, entered into with the Qatari royal family. Further, that the Sharif elder had set up a steel mill in Dubai after losing his Pakistani steel mills in East Pakistan (when it became Bangladesh) and in West Pakistan (through Bhutto’s nationalisation). Eventually the elder Sharif had sold the Dubai steel mill and invested 12 million dirhams from the proceeds in the Qatari royal family’s real estate business. Hence the final payoff in the shape of the London flats, which were used by the Sharif family over the years and were marked to go to Hussain Sharif according to his grandfather’s will. This letter has opened a new Pandora’s box. The SC five-member bench, already irritated at the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf’s (PTI’s) counsel Hamid Zaman’s presentation of three volumes of ‘evidence’ that the judges found largely irrelevant, dismissed the letter as “hearsay”, since its text and the age of the writer clearly indicated that he had no personal, direct knowledge of the transactions referred to. The SC questioned Akram Sheikh whether the letter writer would be prepared to appear if the court summoned him, to which Sheikh could give no definite answer. The bench also noted that the letter’s contents contradicted the statement made by PM Nawaz Sharif in parliament, in which he stated that the London properties had been bought from the proceeds of a steel mill in Jeddah sold before Nawaz Sharif ended his exile in Saudi Arabia. The money trail spelt out by the PM as an explanation of the matter is at cross-purposes with the Qatari letter. This development and the volume of ‘evidence’ submitted by both sides in the case led the bench to remark that it seemed everyone was trying to spin out the proceedings indefinitely. On the one hand PTI has made no secret of its preference for the Panamagate affair to be decided by the SC itself, while on the other it has burdened the court and the whole process with ‘evidence’ that seems to rely more on quantity than quality. The Sharif family’s strategy, as Akram Sheikh’s new gambit seems to indicate, is to prolong the process till at least the next elections in 2018. Both parties are thus, advertently or inadvertently, pushing the matter towards the formation of an inquiry commission to conduct a forensic audit of the money trail and determine if the PM or any member of his family, past or current, has broken any laws and been guilty of money laundering. It is obvious that the SC cannot, and should not, conduct an inquiry or audit itself. If the matter logically ends up at the doorstep of an inquiry commission set up by the SC, who can say how long the process will take. It was obvious to experts and informed observers from day one that the Panama leaks presented an unfamiliar daunting challenge to the judiciary and all other institutions of state to determine the truth and arrive at the necessary conclusions for further action if any proved required. The inherent complexity of the task has been further exacerbated, if not the waters muddied, by the seemingly dilatory tactics of the Sharif family and its legal team, ‘aided and abetted’ by the incompetence of a PTI legal team unable to focus on the essential, dust off the dross, and convince the court on the basis of the ‘evidence’ presented. If this assessment is correct, the SC is faced with a seemingly insoluble obstacle which, without recognising its own limitations, the complexity of the audit/inquiry task, and the possible timeframe for concluding the same, cannot be easily untangled. An unenviable position indeed for the apex court to be placed in.

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