Death by a thousand cuts


Death by a thousand cuts

Ayaz Amir

In their worst nightmares the Sharifs could not have dreamt of what is happening to them now: the repeated questioning of Hussain Nawaz, the summons to Hasan Nawaz, the extended interrogation of the Sharif cousin, Tariq Shafi, the questioning of the National Bank Chairman, Saeed Ahmed, said to be close to the royal family—that’s how you get appointed to high places in the Islamic Republic.

Tariq Shafi has complained of harsh treatment at the hands of the Joint Investigation Team set up by the Supreme Court to look into the Panama allegations against the Sharifs. The Supreme Court’s observation, when the matter came before it, was apt: that Tariq Shafi had been called for questioning, not for a tea party.

From whichever angle one looks at it, the net around the Sharifs is tightening. I never thought that matters would come to this. The ruling party is worried. You can tell this from the angry tone of its cheerleaders who gather at the Federal Judicial Academy where this investigation is being conducted.

Nihal Hashmi may have overstepped the mark in his threatening remarks about the members of the JIT—saying that those who were making life difficult for Nawaz Sharif would have their lives made difficult by the people of Pakistan—but what he said reflects the true sentiments of the leading lights of the ruling party. He only blurted out what many around him inwardly feel.

This is a party in power but a party now also in mortal danger. Sharif acolytes like to think there is a sinister conspiracy afoot against their leadership but what is actually happening is the past catching up with them…finally. They have escaped so much, brushed aside so many obstacles. But this Panama business is sticking to them and despite their best efforts they have not been able to shake it off. Conspiracies in Pakistan usually arise from within. But this is a bolt from the blue, coming from afar and in a manner that scarce anyone in Pakistan could have imagined.

Everyone in Pakistan—in politics, business and the media—knew that the Sharifs had property in London. After all, Nawaz Sharif never made a secret of where he stayed during his frequent trips to London. He resided and held court in the same flats which are now the subject of investigation in this case. During his years of Musharraf-induced exile any number of journalists would have met him there.

The same flats were the subject of stories and exposes—indeed, titillating write-ups— in the London press. After the Musharraf coup the younger son was interviewed by Tim Sebastian of the BBC and he was questioned about the provenance of the flats. It’s quite a funny interview with Hasan under persistent questioning finally saying that he’s just a student and living in this rather posh flat “on a rent basis” and all he knows is that the money for the rent comes regularly from Pakistan.

The same properties figured in a case brought by Al Towfeek Investment Fund in the London High Court against the Sharifs in 1999. The Sharifs had taken a loan from the Fund and then, being the smart businessmen they have always been, refused to pay it back. The ensuing litigation led to a London High Court ruling that if the loan was not paid back the Hyde Park flats which were known to be in the possession of the Sharifs would be attached. That is when the Sharifs saw discretion to be the better part of the valour and arranged for the repayment of the loan (through Saudi benefactors, names unknown).

There was no mention of any Qatari connection regarding ownership of the flats back then. In the London High Court Qatar does not figure at all—it is just the Sharifs and the flats and the unpaid loan from Al Towfeek. The brainwave regarding Qatar has come only now, after all these years.

Come to think of it, to expect that the lordships hearing the Panama case would swallow or give any credence to these figments of Qatari imagination amounts really to insulting the intelligence of their lordships. Who in his right mind would take the two letters seriously? And here the Sharif family and its lawyers were resting on the hope that they had only to present them in court and their lordships would fall over themselves and exclaim that they had seen the light…that all was now clear and the honourable Sharifs, unfairly maligned, were innocent, their fair names tarnished by this unseemly scandal.

Nor were the mighty Sharifs all that wrong. As already noted, they had escaped so much in their long political journey. Cases and allegations which would have destroyed other politicians they had safely navigated through the help of favourable judicial benches. The PPP leadership, then consisting of the late Benazir Bhutto and her colourful husband, seldom found relief from the courts.
The Sharifs, born under a lucky star, seldom came across unfriendly benches.

Until now, that is. For the first time they have encountered independent judges and independent-minded investigators and they don’t know what to make of this experience. Before the Supreme Court they changed their teams of lawyers thrice, which was a measure of their new-found difficulties. Nothing seemed to suffice, no brilliant lawyer was found to be adequate. And what could the best lawyers perform when the only trick left to them was to brandish the Qatari letters which when they became public knowledge were enough to provoke laughter across the land.

The Lahore theatre world is known for its humour. If an enterprising producer constructs a play around the Qatari letters bright chances are that it will be an instant success.

This is not conspiracy. This is Providence, the mills of God, the implacable workings of Fate. When Nawaz Sharif faced persecution at Gen Musharraf’s hands there was sympathy for him. In those circumstances when Pakistan was ruled by a military dictator the impossible came about and Nawaz Sharif, the protégé of a previous military dictator, became a symbol and champion of democracy.

Look at the wheel coming full circle. Nawaz Sharif now is not the hunted or the persecuted. No rider on horseback has deposed him. He is in power, as third-time prime minister of Pakistan, and yet the wheels of justice are moving towards him and despite the trappings of high office it lies not in his power to stop this remorseless advance.

Time was when a power-drunk PML-N was not above assaulting the Supreme Court and putting a chief justice to flight. This actually happened and is not a figure of speech. Today the PML-N leadership can only seethe from within and mutter dark thoughts. The PML-N is in power but it does not have the same power it had in 1998 when the apex court was stormed. The balance of power within the country has shifted.

Panama is a place that most Pakistanis would not be able to place on the map. The broad oceans separate it from Pakistan. Yet winds wafting from it have caused an earthquake here. And the ground is still trembling and we don’t know where all this will end.

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