At a stage when Pakistan is fast approaching insolvency, events shaped by Imran Khan convinced the Supreme Court of Pakistan to admit petitions on Panama Papers which were unfortunately dubbed as frivolous earlier by the Registrar. The recent proceedings of the apex court indicate a prevalence of sense of urgency within the bench. As the administrative head of the Supreme Court, it will be interesting to see as to what action the Chief Justice will take to dispel any notion of partisanship of the Registry of the apex court that was created by the Registrar’s gross illegality of returning the petition on Panama Leaks.
With the two organs of the state i.e. the Parliament and the Executive already tainted, Pakistan’s approach to Rule of Law as the next alternative now depends a lot on how the Supreme Court conducts itself in the discharge of its constitutional obligation. This is an extraordinary situation and the apex may have to resolve the issues in terms of the principle, ‘welfare of the people is the supreme law’. The Supreme Court is on trial and dialogues inside the courtroom indicate that the honourable judges are conscious of this fact. The precedent set up in Yousaf Raza Gilani’s case in the recent past of disqualifying a Prime Minister is extremely relevant in the case of Panama Leaks, wherein Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is being attributed in misdeclaration of assets and if such misdeclaration is established, the apex court will have no choice but to disqualify him keeping in view the principle of consistency or equality.
PTI’s petition is precise and specific. Nowhere does it ask for an inquiry commission whose recommendations will be subject to action by the government at its own speed and convenience. The fate of commissions in the past provides a peep into what lies ahead. Therefore, cognisant of this futility, the PTI legal team must refocus its arguments to its prayers. Any action broader than this could put this exercise into a trap of delaying the matters indefinitely.
In its response to an earlier request by the government, the Supreme Court showed its inability to proceed under the Inquiries Act. A commission can only recommend and not punish.
In case the PTI lawyers accept the suggestion of a commission, it would amount to abandoning or at least postponing the basic relief being claimed in its petition. If this happens, the entire case will be doomed by procedural delays of the Commission. Rather, PTI should continue to demand the resignation of the prime minister and his entire official team (paid from public exchequer), busy in defending him.
The reluctance of state institutions to act on Panama Leaks has now been exposed in the Supreme Court. NAB, FBR and FIA hid behind flimsy excuses. In the recent Public Accounts Committee deliberations, heads of SECP, NAB and State Bank did not make an appearance. Chairman FBR though present, shirked from responsibility. The Registrar of the Supreme Court, a deputationist who does not belong to the legal fraternity, violated judicial precedents under the nose of Chief Justice of Pakistan and his fellow judges. In pursuance to PROTECTION OF ECONOMIC REFORMS ACT 1992: ACT No. XII OF 1992, the State Bank issued many circulars relating to offshore businesses and refused to investigate.
The most powerful anti-corruption institution is NAB. Through the powers vested in it, it can force all other institutions to act in unison. By law it has the power to arrest and investigate public office holders of Pakistan except those with constitutional immunity. According to Section 4 of NAO, the applicability extends to all public servants and citizens. Once placed in juxtaposition with Section 9, a combined reading leads to the irresistible conclusion that none are excluded. When Admiral Fasih Bokhari was Chairman NAB, his office investigated two sitting prime ministers and filed references against them in the Accountability Courts in OGRA and RPP cases. Logically, Panama papers will have to be investigated by NAB and accountability courts that function under the Supreme Court of Pakistan. Others will have to assist NAB.
This is what PTI has prayed for. If the prayer is accepted, the Supreme Court will have to make Chairman NAB and others accountable. Only then will the investigations proceed effectively.
Now back to political questions.
Principally, Imran Khan’s call for transparency and accountability is no different from the stances taken by PPPP. What sets them apart is the methodology. But Imran Khan’s agenda is much beyond Panama. He is seeking accountability and transparency in all matters of the state; a proceeding under law on Model Town Massacre and apprehension of all high offices involved in the planted leaks to Dawn. All three issues reflect the aspirations of the people and the interests of the state. Supreme Court’s admission of the PTI petition in public interest is only one aspect of the recent agitation. The other two issues have yet to be addressed.
In the past week, the world witnessed workers being beaten, teargassed, arrested without warrants and put in preventive detentions. There were also two avoidable deaths. Live coverage of events by the media made numbers inconsequential. The State, with blatant abuse of power, displayed and employed all munitions of violence and obliged a lockdown all over Punjab and Islamabad. In addition, there were also counter narratives flashed by the government.
First, news was spread that PTI protesters would be armed and supported by militant outfits mentioned in Dawn Leaks. This brought the few liberal and leftist activists into the open against PTI. They steamed out in Pakistan, London and New York. The purpose of this narrative was to reinforce perceptions created by Dawn Leaks and depict PTI as a proxy of the defence establishment and link it to militant outfits.
The ploy failed. No militants were seen. Rather a group of rightist parties with criminal records, supported by the government were allowed to rally despite the imposition of Section 144. By submitting to Supreme Court, Imran Khan deflated this narrative. He exercised his democratic right. This should dispel all propaganda of the party being a toy of military establishment and militant outfits.
Secondly, the trigger happy PML-N media team unsuccessfully created a perception that its crackdown was supported by the military. This was done to divert attention from the planted Dawn story.
The ploy failed due to an ISPR release and social media.
Thirdly, the government launched an advert campaign on media highlighting its achievements. In the past, the PPPP government had been prevented to do so by the Supreme Court when its Prime Minister was under charges. The Supreme Court must stop this.
So apart from the Panama Papers, the focus has to shift to the Model Town Massacre and Dawn Leaks. In addition, the government has to account for its excessive use of force and suppression of the fundamental rights of its citizens. PTI and all its allies including PAT and PMLQ have to forge a collective framework and strategy to carry forward these cases in the logical direction. Justice will only come if the pressure is relentless.