THE Pakistan Supreme Court’s verdict to debar former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from holding any public office for life is too harsh a punishment and mired in controversy. The court can hold him guilty, but it is up to Pakistan’s parliament, including the Senate, to punish him. That is the reason why there has been a protest from Members of Parliament, most notably from his Muslim League party. Nawaz Sharif was disqualified in July after a probe ordered by the Supreme Court on Panama papers which they found him guilty of not disclosing money from his son Hussain Nawaz’s company in Dubai. The former Prime Minister denied receiving any money from his son and termed the court’s decision a “conspiracy” to unseat him.
In its verdict last week, the apex court said that under the country’s Constitution, no person once disqualified from office by the top court can hold public office again. Justice Umar Ata Bandyal read out the 60-page verdict of the five-member bench, headed by Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar, in cases involving interpretation and determination of the question of temporary or permanent bar from contesting elections. Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar observed pronouncing the verdict before the ruling that the public deserves leaders of good character. “It is permanent.” Justice Bandial wrote on the same benh that the disqualification of any Member of Parliament or a public servant under Article 62 (1) (f) would be premature. “Such a person cannot contest elections or become a Member of Parliament,”Article 62(1) (f) sets the precondition for a Member of Parliament to be honest and righteous.
The ruling has effectively ended any hope for the return of the three-time former Prime Minister, who had to resign after being declared dishonest by the Supreme Court in July last year. Understandably, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), which is also the ruling party, has rejected the verdict. Its contention was that the judgment smacked of a political victimization. “It is not the job of the court to declare any politician righteous or not. This is the job of Parliament or the Election Commission,” said Information Minister Maryam Aurangzeb, after the Supreme Court’s verdict, calling it a most controversial one.
The apex court’s verdict has come as a big jolt to the ruling party, particularly at a time when the general elections in Pakistan are only a couple of months away. Hence, Nawaz Sharif was within his rights to protest against the verdict, adding that he would go back to the people so that they can decide whether he should continue in politics or not. Lately, all the three Supreme Courts in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, have been criticised for stepping into the field that belongs to the Executive. Some Prime Ministers, in the past, have not accepted such verdicts by the court. Indira Gandhi, when she was occupying the top seat, was disqualified by the Allahabad High Court.
Instead of stepping down from office, Mrs Gandhi imposed the emergency and changed the law itself. This happened because the opposition members had been detained and there was no one to question her, except one member from Srinagar, Shamim Ahmed Shamim. Shamim all by himself discussed the case of Mrs Gandhi on the floor of the house. She did not dare touch him because Sheikh Abdullah, Jawaharlal Nehru’s friend, was behind Shamim. In the neighbouring Bangladesh, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has made a mockery of democracy. She has held elections without transferring the real power to the Election Commission as the practice was. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party boycotted the polls but Prime Minister Hasina made no effort to accommodate it. It was comical that there was practically no opposition in the Jatiyo Sangsad. General H.M. Ershad’s Jatiya Party was the opposition. Sheikh Hasina, by accommodating his party members in the cabinet, finished even a semblance of opposition.
The authenticity of election is still pending before the Supreme Court and judges are so afraid that they are going out of Dhaka. Take the case of the five-year sentence handed out to former Prime Minister and Opposition leader Khaleda Zia.? The judges are on the run because of Prime Minister Hasina’s reported annoyance with them. One judge has gone abroad and may not return because he is said to be in the bad books of the Prime Minister. Understandably, the judge fears some action against him if and when he returns. The popular perception is that Sheikh Hasina’s hand is behind court rulings against Begum Khalida Zia. Justice Mohammed Akhtaruzzaman of the Special Court, while convicting the former Prime Minister, said she was given a short jail term because of her “health and social status.” This mean that the Begum cannot contest the upcoming general elections in December. The charges against her are embezzling funds to the tune of 21 million takas (approximately Rs. 1.6 crore) received from foreign donors and meant for the Zia Orphanage Trust run by the family.
Nawas Sharif’s case is somewhat similar to Khaleda Zia’s. In her case, she had alleged that it was an attempt by Sheikh Hasina to oust her from politics and elections by pressuring the court. “I am ready to face all outcomes. I am not afraid of jail or punishment. I am not going to bow down my head,” said the former Prime Minister. But legal experts point out that the verdict could jeopardize Zia’s political career since she cannot contest polls.
Nawaz Sharif still draws the crowd. For India, he was the best alternative in hostile Pakistan. Today or tomorrow the two countries would have to sit across the table and sort out their differences. India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval meeting Pakistan’s NSA is a step in the right direction. But the ousting of Nawaz Sharif from Pakistan’s politics has upset the entire scenario. India would have to wait how Pakistan emerges out of this imbroglio. Any step we take at present would be a shot in the dark.
—The writer is a veteran Indian journalist, syndicated columnist, human rights activist and author.