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The much-awaited verdict by the Supreme Court on the Panama Papers case has finally come, and it may please or displease the contestants depending on how they look at it. It has settled some issues but left open for contention many others for yet another spell of political battle in the country. To no great surprise it is a 3-2 verdict, with those for disqualification of the Prime Minister losing to the other three, among them being the head of the five-judge bench, Justice Asif Saeed Khosa. Not that a split verdict lacks jurisdictional application; it is as viable as a unanimous decision, but in the eyes of the general public it lends moral credence to the losers' position. According to the court, there is "insufficient" evidence for removal of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. But, since his party is trying to celebrate, is he really out of the woods? Perhaps not; the joint investigation team to be formed in a week or so will ask him and his two sons some tough questions - being that it is a forum different from the one the Supreme Court provided. The team will be conducting an investigation into the money trail from Pakistan to offshore accounts and acquisition of assets overseas, finally landing in London where properties were bought by the prime minister's family. And among the ones who will be asked the questions by the investigators will include the Prime Minister himself. It will work on day-to-day basis and submit its findings within 60 days to a special bench of the Supreme Court constituted by the Chief Justice of the court. There is, however, little doubt that the task assigned to the joint investigation team will not be completed within the stipulated 60 days because of the many jurisdictions involved from where evidence will have to be collected and the difficulty in collecting the requisite evidence due to procedural bottlenecks and lack of bilateral arrangements between Pakistan and the jurisdictions involved. So the investigators will have to seek extension of time from the Supreme Court. The process could drag on for months to come, and all this while Nawaz Sharif would be in the dock. This is what his detractors have been trying to do all these months. Simply put, he is not disqualified, but he hasn't been given a clean chit either.

As promised, both Nawaz Sharif's ministers and his detractors have accepted the verdict of the Supreme Court, but in line with their particular positions in the case. The ministers called it a victory. The government side promised to abide by the verdict - because it does not disqualify Nawaz Sharif. Imran Khan lauded the verdict - because it ordered a criminal investigation against Nawaz Sharif. This is criminal investigation, he says, so what right has he to remain prime minister? He has asked the PM to step down for at least 60 days! Justice Asif Saeed Khosa's remark that "a thorough investigation is required" bespeaks that the song has not yet ended. So, as the Supreme Court places a political victory in one hand of Nawaz Sharif, it thrusts moral defeat in the other. That is what the opposition led by Imran Khan has been trying all along. For a member of the National Assembly it is imperative that he should be perceptibly "sadiq" and "ameen"; should he be short on that qualification he forfeits the membership of the National Assembly. Two judges of the country's highest court have branded him dishonest. Of course, the other three did not, but does that matter if in the end what counts is the verdict of the court - i.e., the majority view? The hope, and wish, of many was that the verdict in the Panama Papers case by the Supreme Court would bring to close the chapter of lingering political confrontation in the country. But that hope stands defeated in the wake of this split verdict. Not that it is not on merit and is short on justice; the court is just and fair, but its interpretation by the contending forces tends to be exploited for their narrow political gains. Frankly, there is no light on the other end of the tunnel yet.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2017


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