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Accountability or regime change in Pakistan?

July 11, 2017

A Joint Investigation Team report has leveled serious charges against the Pakistani PM in the Panama Papers case. But renowned lawyer and activist Asma Jahangir tells DW the probe seeks regime change, not accountability.

Pakistan Premierminister Nawaz Sharif, Untersuchungsausschuss
Image: Reuters/F. Mahmood

In April last year, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif found himself in a precarious position following the "revelations" made by the famed Panama Papers. Leaked documents showed that three of Sharif's children had links with offshore companies that owned properties in London. Sharif denies any wrongdoing.

Subsequently, a petition against Sharif was filed in the country's Supreme Court, which in April ruled against Sharif's disqualification as prime minister but formed a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) to further probe allegations.

In a report submitted to the apex court on Monday, July 10, the JIT said Sharif's sons, Hussain and Hassan Nawaz, were used as proxies to build family assets.

Asma Jahangir eine renommierte Menschenrechtsaktivistin
Jahangir: 'PM Sharif's resignation at this point would mean admission of guilt'Image: privat

The JIT also pointed out failure on the part of the Sharif family to produce the required documents that would confirm their "known sources of income," underlining that the prime minister's family was not able to reconcile their assets with their means of income.

Consequently, the six-member JIT recommended that the case be forwarded to the National Accountability Bureau, which deals with corruption cases.

In an interview with DW, Asma Jahangir, prominent rights activist and former president of Pakistan's Supreme Court Bar association, says the JIT report has put PM Sharif in a difficult position.

DW: How damaging is the JIT's report for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif - legally as well as politically?

Asma Jahangir: It is a report put forward by an investigating agency, and its veracity still needs to be proven. But politically it has damaged the prime minister immensely because the report has unearthed some new factors which were not there in the earlier investigations.

You did raise some concerns about the formation of the JIT. What were your major objections?

The concerns are not just about whether Article 184 (3) of the Pakistani constitution was applicable in Sharif's Panama leaks case. [Article 184 (3) of Pakistan's 1973 Constitution allows the apex court to make an order on a "question of public importance with reference to the enforcement of any of the fundamental rights"].

The "memogate" was the first instance when the court set up a commission. [Hussain Haqqani, former Pakistani ambassador to the US, allegedly commissioned in 2011 a middleman to send an anonymous letter to the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, Admiral Mike Mullen, asking for help to prevent a putsch against then President Asif Ali Zardari in Pakistan]. The second such commission was established after the carnage in Quetta last year.

Imran Khan Parteivorsitzender PTI Pakistan
Opposition leader Imran Khan demands PM Sharif steps down following the JIT reportImage: REUTERS

The question is whether the judiciary should start the investigation from top or from bottom? Then there is an issue about the formation of the JIT, which includes members of the military's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Military Intelligence (MI) agencies. This hadn't happened before in a civilian case and had been restricted to terrorism-related cases. There are concerns about leakages from the JIT meetings and the fact that there is a JIT member who the Supreme Court had itself ordered to be removed from the National Accountability Bureau.

In any case, it is an investigation report, not a court verdict.

Read: #DawnLeaks: Pakistani PM Sharif 'forces' powerful military to back off

Some analysts say the main issue regarding Panama Papers in Pakistan is political; it is actually not about corruption but to cut Prime Minister Sharif to his size, as he has been trying to assert his supremacy against the military. What is your take on it?

I agree with it to an extent because if the Panama petitioners were really asking for accountability then they should have included all names mentioned in Panama Papers. A sitting judge's name is also in the leaks but there has never been a demand to look into it. So it appears that the petitioners want a regime change. It is not about accountability.

The question of accountability, in my opinion, should be that when Nawaz Sharif was close to the military establishment, why were the courts so lenient with him? Now when Sharif is no longer close to that establishment, they are acting against him. This is my concern: how has the judiciary become so independent all of a sudden? Maybe it is not a relevant question, but it is something that people will be asking.

Pakistan Armee chef Qamar Javed Bajwa
Pakistan's powerful army denies any involvement in politicsImage: picture-alliance/AA/ISPR

You can't see this Panama Papers case in isolation. There is a history of opposition demonstrations [by Imran Khan's PTI party] behind it and it is apparent that the strings are being moved from somewhere.

What could be the impact of a potential Sharif ouster, or his resignation, on Pakistan's democratic setup?

It would be very difficult for PM Sharif to resign now because resignation at this particular point would mean he is admitting guilt. Had the resignation come before the JIT investigations, it would have been looked at in a different perspective.

The JIT has recommended to the Supreme Court that there should be a reference against Sharif. It is a charge sheet, and it is now up to the apex court whether they want to hand it over to the National Accountability Bureau or not. It could even lead to Sharif's and his children's imprisonment.

Read: A spotlight on the Pakistani military's corruption

Asma Jahangir is Pakistan's leading human rights activist and former president of the country's Supreme Court Bar Association. She served as chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a non-governmental rights-based organization, and also worked with the United Nations as Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion.

The interview was conducted by Shamil Shams.