Nawaz Sharif’s release has queered the pitch for the Military Establishment and PM Imran Khan
In the latest twist in the ever unpredictable quagmire of Pakistani politics, three-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, his daughter Maryam Nawaz, and son-in-law Mohammad Safdar, were released on bail from Adiala jail on 19 September after the Islamabad High Court (IHC) suspended their prison sentences in the Avenfield properties reference. Sharif and his two family members had on 6 July this year been sentenced by Judge Mohammad Bashir of the Islamabad accountability court to ten years, seven years, and one year imprisonment respectively for owning four flats in Avenfield, London which, according to the judgment, were valued beyond the known sources of income of the Sharifs. Judge Bashir had also barred them from contesting elections or holding public offices for a period of ten years after their release. Sharif and Maryam had been arrested on 13 July on their arrival at the Lahore airport from London and shifted to Adiala jail, where they remained till their release on bail.
The Sharifs, upon their return to Pakistan, had filed separate petitions through counsels Khawaja Haris and Amjad Pervaiz requesting the IHC to suspend the accountability court sentences and set aside the verdict. The petitions moved the onus of proof from the accused to the prosecution. While the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), Pakistan’s anti-graft watchdog, argued against the maintainability of the petitions, the IHC division bench comprising Judges Athar Minallah and Miangul Hassan Aurangzeb questioned whether convictions can be based on presumption. Justice Athar Minallah, one of the members on the two-judge IHC bench, observed that "the NAB, after conducting thorough investigation, couldn't bring any evidence of Nawaz Sharif's ownership of the Avenfield apartments, but you want us to admit his ownership on mere presumption". The IHC bench suspended the sentences against the Sharifs till the final judgment on their appeals is pronounced. It also granted bail to all three against surety bonds. The NAB, meanwhile, has said that it would challenge the IHC decision in Pakistan’s Supreme Court.
Reactions in Pakistan to Nawaz Sharif’s release have been mixed. While the political circles towed predictable affiliation-mandated lines, some journalists came up with pertinent observations. Mehreen Zahra-Malik asked, “So what does the suspension of the jail sentence against former Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif mean? That the 'powers that be' only wanted him in jail to prevent him from contesting the July 25 general election and not to permanently bar him from politics?”. Malik Achakzai felt that “Everything is obvious now why Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam N Sharif were subjected to torture and media trial. The only reason is they went up for a democratic federation of Pakistan having supreme parliament and independent foreign policy”. Kamran Khan observed that “all the legal experts since the beginning had a view that it was a weak and lame judgment against former Premier hence easily got exposed in the appeal process. Putting a three time PM behind the Bars is not posing Pakistan’s good image outside and in international politics. Also Nawaz’s come back can assist opposition in aligning in firm position against the government which due to a divided and a confused opposition is still enjoying its honey moon period”.
Nawaz Sharif has been unyielding in his claim that he personally, and his party the Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz (PML-N), were victims of a concerted campaign by the military establishment to weaken them prior to the 25 July General Elections as revenge for Sharif challenging the establishment for its support of terrorist proxies and its policy towards India. He has stressed that his imprisonment just a few days before the elections was politically motivated. Opposition leaders across the political spectrum have accused the establishment of rigging the ballot in favour of Imran Khan. Confirming the dubious role of the military establishment in the elections, an EU election observer mission noted that “systematic efforts to undermine the ruling party”, including through the judiciary, were undertaken in the run-up to the voting. Daniyal Aziz Choudhry, a PML-N leader and former cabinet member, put it more explicitly when he said, “Imagine if this (the IHC) decision had come before the election? The result would be night and day”. He felt that the IHC verdict would raise serious questions about the legitimacy of the mandate of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) party.
Nawaz Sharif’s release from prison at this juncture does raise the question of why the establishment chose to let him go now if it had deemed itself more comfortable with him in a prison cell just a couple of months ago. There are two plausible explanations for this, both of which do not bring glad tidings for the establishment. The first is that the establishment, having achieved its immediate objective of having the pliant Imran Khan on the saddle for the next five years, assessed that the political damage in creating a martyr out of Sharif through a lengthy incarceration may not be desirable. The establishment decided, therefore, to provide Sharif temporary relief with the rider that he would remain free only if he respected the red lines of the establishment. If he chose otherwise, the Avenfield properties reference as well as the treason case launched against Sharif for accusing the military of being responsible for the Mumbai attacks of 2008 would again be pressed into action with renewed vigor. Sharif, contrary to the establishment’s expectation that he would toe its line, cannot afford to do so as diluting his anti-establishment crusade at this stage would invite accusations of hypocrisy and would let down his supporters as the PML-N’s entire election campaign in July focused on respect of the ballot and rejection of the invisible rule of the military establishment. It would suit Sharif more to capitalize on his victim-status (despite his relatively short stay in prison) and attack the credibility of Imran Khan and his government. Sharif would also not have taken kindly to being compelled to leave his wife, who was on a ventilator in a very serious condition in a hospital in London, only to lose her while he was still in prison.
Sharif has the charisma and potential to galvanize his party, beginning from his stronghold in Punjab where just a few weeks into its tenure questions are already being asked about the effectiveness of the PTI government there. He will be ably supported by his daughter Maryam Nawaz, who too will make full use of the victim card. Reports indicate that Sharif has already reached out to Asif Ali Zardari of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) for support. If these two major parties are able to work out an arrangement for cooperation, they could pose serious challenges not just to the pawn in the establishment’s game, Imran Khan, but also to the actual kings. Nawaz has, in any case, already demonstrated his preference for prison as against being pressurized and browbeaten. This would have been noted with concern.
The second possibility is that Nawaz engineered his release through the linkages and connections he had established during his decades in power in both Islamabad and Lahore. If this is indeed the case, then the signs for the establishment are even more ominous. It would affirm Nawaz’s ability to take on the establishment head-on and emerge victorious, and also demonstrate beyond doubt the clout in the country that he still wields. This may have constrained a nervous establishment to hurriedly brush the dust off the treason files and rush it to the nearest court they could find.
The initiation of the treason cases by the establishment against a three-time democratically elected prime minister and Cyril Almeida, a respected journalist who was just doing his job in reporting what Sharif told him, has come in for severe criticism from various quarters. Pakistani human rights groups and unions of media workers have denounced the Lahore High Court order for the arrest of Almeida and #IStandWithCyril has been trending on Twitter since 25 September. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) said it was “greatly perturbed” by the arrest warrant issued against Almeida, who it described as a “widely read and highly respected journalist”. The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists called the court order another attack on freedom of the media and vowed to protest against the move. Afzal Butt, the union’s head, said, "This is unacceptable...How can reporting facts be a crime?".
The facts in this particular instance are that Pakistani terrorists backed and sponsored by the Pakistani intelligence agencies had carried out the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks and for this reason the military establishment had stonewalled the Pakistani trial of those accused of involvement in the attacks. Nawaz Sharif had underlined these facts in an interview to Almeida, who had published it in the Pakistani daily he worked for. The decision to pursue the treason cases while Imran Khan simultaneous proposed to his Indian counterpart a meeting between the Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) is intriguing, especially as Khan also expressed willingness to discuss terrorism.
Indian authorities while declining the proposed meeting would certainly have taken into account the futility of any dialogue in an environment where the new Government in Pakistan not only seeks to deny that its agencies and nationals carried out the Mumbai terrorist attacks when the whole world knows and acknowledges that they did, but even chooses to accuse a former prime minister of treason when he speaks the truth on the matter. The hollowness of Imran Khan’s readiness to discuss terrorism stands badly exposed.
India, in recent years, has made it clear to Pakistan that terror and talks cannot proceed together. Knowing this position fully well, the onus lay on Khan to demonstrate that he had reined in the military establishment enough to at least prevent fresh atrocities. The killing by Pakistan of an Indian soldier and mutilation of his body, as also the murder in Jammu & Kashmir of three special police officers by Pakistan-backed terrorists around the same time as the talks were proposed indicated just the opposite. The reality is that the military establishment retains much more power over the elected prime minister today than it did before the 25 July elections. A freed Sharif, with his emergence as a powerful voice against the political role of Pakistan's military, has the potential to represent a serious challenge to this.