Lesson from Nawaz Sharif’s Release: Axe the NAB Courts

Nawaz Sharif released prison term suspended

Two months after an accountability court had sentenced ex-PM of Pakistan on corruption charges, High Court suspended his jail term and ordered his immediate release.

Mr. Sharif had received a 10-year prison sentence weeks before the election that his party lost as an incumbent.

The Whole Story

The 2015 Panama Papers exposed the Sharif family. After years of denials, they finally admitted ownership of luxury apartments in central London. Having vowed to provide answers, they refused to cooperate.

Sharif held public rallies and spoke in the Parliament but said very little of value. Then De Facto leader of the opposition, Imran Khan pressed him on the issue until the Supreme Court finally took action.

The Supreme Court supervised an inquiry that led to Sharif’s dismissal from the Prime Minister’s office. In the same judgment, the Supreme Court ordered an accountability court to try the Sharif family on corruption charges.

A hundred hearings later, the court handed Nawaz Sharif a prison term of 10 years. His daughter received 7 years and her husband 1 year on perjury charges. It happened weeks before 2018 elections that Sharif’s party lost as an incumbent.

After serving two months in prison, Islamabad High Court suspended their sentences though it didn’t suspend their convictions on corruption charges.

The media blamed the prosecution. But there is a deeper issue here that the mainstream coverage has thus far missed. This was not a retrial. It was an appeal against a judgment from an accountability court.

The High Court judges had to rule whether judges from the accountability made the right decision. They didn’t have to consider new evidence since it was an appeal, not a retrial. It was a perusal of the fairness and intellect of the judges serving in the accountability courts.

The flaw lies in the court procedure here. Why should the prosecution team from the accountability court argue in favor of a judgment that accepted only some of their arguments? Ultimately, the judges who wrote the judgment from the accountability court are the only ones who can defend it.

The prosecution team does not have any grounds to defend the judgment unless the judges accepted all of its’ premises in their entirety without objections. The aim of the prosecutor is conviction no matter the truth. The role of a judge is to find out the truth.

Prosecutors rarely fully agree to a court’s decision. There are always areas where they think the court could have leaned more in their favor.

Thus, when prosecutors defend a court’s decision in an appeals process, they can only rely on whatever leeway the original judgment provided. They cannot invoke their arguments from the trial unless the original judgment accepts them.

So in that light, the role of prosecution becomes minimal during an appeals process. It wouldn’t matter if appeals court heard only the defense’s arguments since the original judgment ought to speak for itself.

Speaking after the High Court’s ruling, Ali Ahmed Kurd, one of the best legal minds in Pakistan called the original judgment flawed.

Kurd’s comments along with High Court’s ruling today show just how broken and frivolous the accountability courts are. He added that the court shouldn’t have sentenced Sharifs in the first place.

Either the accountability court intentionally handed Sharif a jail sentence on unsound legal grounds or it is incapable of writing a bulletproof judgment. In either case, why should it exist?

Since it’s inevitable that those accused of corruption would challenge the decision in High Court, why not just try them there?

The prosecutors will now challenge the Sharif’s release in the Supreme Court. Whomever the Supreme Court sides with, it cannot evade an image crisis.

When referring the case to the accountability court, the Supreme Court set a deadline of 6 months. It shows that the Supreme Court was confident that with the evidence they provided to the accountability court, it shouldn’t take more than six months to sentence the accused.

If Supreme Court sides with the High Court judgment, it will be a subtle admission that either their assessment of the evidence against the Sharifs was wrong or their estimate of the time frame was off.

But if the Supreme Court sides with the accountability court’s judgment, it will be reiterating the stance it took on the Sharif case following its’ judgment. Hence, there will have been no need to refer the case to the accountability court in the first place and the Supreme Court could have handed out prison terms right then.

Regardless of how Sharif’s case ends, it has pointed out the deficiencies that exist in the criminal justice system of Pakistan when it comes to holding the powerful accountable.

The institutions investigating the accused shouldn’t be the ones handing out sentences. Since most high-profile cases in Pakistan end up in the Supreme Court anyway, why not give a special SC unit the same powers as an accountability court to speed up justice?

It might sanctify the justice system rather than invite libels against state institutions.

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