The atmosphere outside the accountability court in Islamabad — where judge Muhammad Bashir will announce the fate of the Sharif family members in a corruption reference regarding their upscale London flats — is thick with tension and buzzing with security personnel. What remains to be decided first, however, is whether the judge will announce the judgement today — Friday, a seemingly popular day among the legal fraternity — or after 7 days as requested by Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz.
The media and political bigwigs are gathering outside, while security has been beefed up in and around the courtroom. Although PML-N leaders are conspicuous by their absence, Asif Kirmani is present at the court today but is not being allowed inside.
Although the verdict was initially slated to be read out by judge Bashir today, ousted premier Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz filed an application with a duty judge yesterday seeking a seven-day delay in the verdict announcement in light of Begum Kulsoom Nawaz’s health.
The Sharif matriarch has been in London since last year, when she was diagnosed with cancer. She was recently placed on a ventilator and her condition remains more or less unchanged.
Receiving Nawaz and Maryam’s application, duty judge Mohammad Arshad issued notices to the prosecution wing of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB).
Judge Bashir has reached the accountability court and started hearing the defence counsel’s arguments, according to media reports.
A decision on whether the verdict will be postponed will be taken by the judge shortly.
The Avenfield reference
The Avenfield reference ─ which pertains to the purchase of four flats in Avenfield House, Park Lane, London ─ was among those filed by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) against the former premier and his children on the Supreme Court’s orders in its landmark July 28 Panamagate verdict which disqualified Sharif.
Besides Nawaz, Maryam and her husband Captain Safdar, NAB had also nominated Hussain Nawaz and Hassan Nawaz — Sharif’s sons — as accused in all three SC-ordered corruption references.
The NAB prosecutor had stated before the accountability court that Nawaz Sharif had acquired the four flats.
Sharif family insists that they had purchased the apartments through ‘legitimate’ financial resources.
They, however, remained unable to disclose those resources before the accountability court or the Supreme Court.
The apex court had directed the accountability court to conclude proceedings within six months and appointed Justice Ijazul Ahsan — who was a member of the bench that heard Panama Papers case — as a “supervisory judge” for the trial.
The proceeding in the Avenfield reference commenced in September and the accountability court indicted Nawaz, Maryam and Safdar on October 19.
The prosecution produced 21 witnesses, including star witness Wajid Zia, the head of the joint investigation team (JIT) which probed the Panamgate case, Director General NAB Zahir Shah, British forensic expert Robert William Radley and solicitor Akhtar Riaz Raja, who is Zia’s cousin, among others.
In May this year, Nawaz, his daughter and son-in-law recorded their statements under Section 342 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) after which the court invited final arguments from the prosecution and the defence counsel.
The lead defence counsel Khawaja Haris initially withdrew from Sharif’s defence over the court beginning the final arguments since he was of the view that the accountability court instead of calling for final arguments should first conclude testimony of prosecution witnesses in other two references – Al Azizia Steel Mills and Flagship Investment.
However, he rejoined the legal team after Nawaz left for the United Kingdom in mid-June where his spouse Kulsoom Nawaz is undergoing medical treatment.
Haris took seven days to conclude the final arguments after which the counsel of Maryam and Safdar started his final arguments.
During the course of arguments, the defence counsel cited a number of judgements of the superior courts to prove that the case against the former prime minister and his family was devoid of evidence.
Nawaz and Maryam have appeared before the court around 100 times, according to media reports.
The Avenfield properties
According to the JIT report submitted in the Panamagate case, the Sharifs have given contradictory statements about their London flats and found that the flats actually belonged to them since 1993.
The report said Hassan Nawaz had contradicted the statement of his brother Hussain Nawaz about the Avenfield apartments, who had earlier stated that only apartment No 17 was in his possession in 1994.
Contrarily, Hassan confirmed that three Avenfield apartments (No 16, 16A and 17) were already in possession of Hussain when he had arrived in London in 1994, while they got the possession of the fourth apartment (17A) in the next six months.
The JIT observed that either one or both brothers had lied to hide some facts and hence they could not be given the benefit of doubt.
It said Nawaz Sharif had distanced himself from the apartments and could not explain the time frame and procedure adopted for obtaining the possession of Avenfield apartments by his sons, and was even uncertain about which son claimed the ownership of the flats now.
But he told the JIT that he usually stayed in apartment No 16 (Avenfield) whenever he visited London.
In the last hearing of the case, Advocate Amjad Pervez, counsel for Maryam and Safdar had said that Wajid Zia hired his cousin, a UK-based solicitor, in the Panama case which is a classic example of nepotism.
Presenting final arguments in the reference, Pervez said the Supreme Court in its May 5 order had empowered the JIT to engage experts but the JIT hired Raja, who was a solicitor.
Pervez said that Raja took legal privilege when asked to disclose his fee but in his own communication on behalf of the JIT, he asked a fellow solicitor in UK, the amount charged by him from Hussain Nawaz.
According to Pervez, Raja did only three things for JIT – sent an email to a solicitor Jeremy Freeman, engaged forensic expert Robert Radley and authored a commentary for the JIT.
He argued that there is nothing on record as to why a solicitor’s services were required to send an email and there is no plausible explanation why Radley couldn’t be engaged directly or through foreign office.
He pointed out that Raja doesn’t have any personal knowledge of the events and his commentary is mere opinion. In addition, he said, it is an admitted fact that Raja “congratulated” Zia following his appointment as JIT head.
The counsel pointed out that Raja’s CV is not on record to show what kind of expert he is and if he was previously engaged in any high-profile or important case before being hired in Panamagate case.
Concluding his case, Pervez said that the JIT deliberately ignored the witnesses such as management of Minerva Services, which was the registered director of Nielson and Nescol off-shore companies that owned the Avenfield apartments.
He claimed that the government of British Virgin Island (BVI) had rejected the request for Mutual Legal Assistance (MLA) sent by the JIT seeking information regarding the London apartments but the investigation team concealed this information in the JIT report.
He argued that the evidence which has been brought on the court’s record was “third-hand” evidence since these were old documents and were already available even before the existence of the JIT.
He further argued that the prosecution had miserably failed to bring “an iota of evidence to substantiate whether Maryam Nawaz or retired Capt Safdar were beneficial owner of the London apartments.”
When he concluded the arguments and thanked the accountability court, Judge Mohammad Bashir without wasting even a second, announced the date for issuing the verdict in the Avenfield reference.
The court directed the accused persons to ensure their presence on July 6, when the judgement in the Avenfield reference was set to be announced.
Nawaz, Maryam seek delay in verdict
The counsel for the family had submitted an application to the accountability court on Thursday, seeking a seven-day postponement in announcement of the verdict in the Avenfield corruption reference, scheduled to be pronounced today.
The application said a postponement in the announcement of the judgement had been sought in view of the fast deteriorating health of Kulsoom Nawaz.
While speaking to journalists in London on Wednesday, Nawaz had already said he wanted to return home as early as possible but had to stay on in the British capital because of the poor health of his ailing wife.
A report about the condition of Begum Kulsoom was attached to the application submitted on behalf of both the former premier and his daughter, Maryam.
The report signed by David Lawrence, a consultant cardiothoracic surgeon, says: “Her [Kulsoom’s] current issue is that she remains ventilator-dependent. Whilst last week it did look as if she might be able to [be] weaned, her respiratory indices deteriorated and she has required pressure control ventilation.”
It goes on to say: “Her CT scan performed on Wednesday, 20th of June 2018, confirmed the diagnosis of small pulmonary emoli and remains anticoagulated with Clexane now. She is single organ failure only. She requires no cardiac support. Having optimised her lung function, I have performed a tracheostomy on her today the July 3, 2018.”
The report adds: “We plan to reduce her sedation tomorrow and wake her over 48 hours. The continued presence and support of her family are imperative.”
The application submitted to the court by the Sharifs stated: “When the applicant received the information that titled reference was fixed for announcement of order/judgement on July 6, 2018, his/her immediate concern was to return to Pakistan to be present before this learned court at the time of pronouncement of judgement. However, considering all contingencies associated with the pronouncement of judgement in the case they approached the team of doctors and sought advice on her mother’s condition and especially the likelihood of her gaining consciousness and coming off ventilator’s support….”
It said the country had a history of verdicts being “unnecessarily” reserved for months, hence delaying the judgement for a few days “considering an extremely sensitive matter” would not violate any requisite of justice or law.
“I want to hear this judgement while standing in the courtroom, amidst my people [and] holding them as witnesses,” Nawaz said in the application.
“Not only is it [delay] in the interest of justice, but in consonance with the spirit and requirement of Section 366 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1898 that the announcement of order in the titled reference may be postponed for a minimum of seven days period,” the application added.