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In pre-poll boost, Nawaz acquitted in graft case by IHC

Awais Yousafzai & Ali Raza
Thursday, Nov 30, 2023

ISLAMABAD/LAHORE: In a major development, the Islamabad High Court (IHC) Wednesday acquitted the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) supremo and former prime minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif in the Avenfield Apartments reference case.

The court also dismissed the plea — filed by the National Accountability Bureau — in the flagship reference against Nawaz after the accountability watchdog withdrew it.

A division bench — comprising Chief Justice Aamer Farooq and Justice Miangul Hassan Aurangzeb — announced the verdict on Nawaz’s plea to overturn his conviction in the graft case.

Recently, the high court also acquitted the PMLN Vice-President Maryam Nawaz and her husband Captain (retd) Muhammad Safdar in the Avenfield reference, nullifying the conviction handed to them in 2018 by an accountability court.

On July 6, 2018, the trial court sentenced Nawaz to 10 years in jail upon conviction along with £8 million fine (approximately Rs1.3 billion) in the Avenfield corruption reference for owning assets beyond known sources of income and an additional year for not cooperating with the NAB, both of them to be served concurrently.

Maryam was sentenced to seven years in prison with a fine of £2 million, and one year for non-cooperation with the bureau, while her husband was handed down two-year rigorous imprisonment.

Nawaz and his daughter Maryam were arrested upon their arrival in Lahore from London in July 2018.

In December the same year, Nawaz got another blow when a NAB court awarded him seven-year jail term and a fine of Rs1.5 billion in the Al-Azizia reference.

Meanwhile, the former PM filed appeals with the Islamabad High Court against both the convictions wanting them to be overturned.

He got a major relief as the high court ordered his release besides Maryam and Captain Safdar while temporarily suspending the sentences awarded to them in the Avenfield reference.

While serving the sentence in the Al-Azizia case, Nawaz was diagnosed with an immune system disorder and subsequently he was allowed to travel abroad for treatment as per the doctors’ advice.

In December 2020, Nawaz was declared a “proclaimed offender” in both cases for “deliberately” not returning to the country.

After he failed to appear in the IHC during the appeals proceedings, the IHC bench, headed by Justice Farooq, dismissed his appeals against convictions on June 24, 2021.

Last month, Nawaz returned home after obtaining protective bail in both graft cases and surrendered him to the court, after which his appeals were restored.

Talking to journalists outside the court after his major legal victory, Nawaz — eyeing his fourth stint as prime minister in the next year’s general elections — said, “I had left it to Allah. In Al-Azizia [Steel Mills corruption reference] also, I’d left my matters to Allah.”

Commenting on the development, PMLN leader Azam Nazeer Tarar said the NAB had failed to present evidence against Nawaz in the Avenfield reference.

He said the NAB was given ample time to prove corruption allegations and establish that Nawaz and his daughter were involved in corruption but the anti-corruption watchdog failed to present substantial evidence.

“Nawaz Sharif stands vindicated and acquitted for lack of evidence,” he added.

When the hearing began, Nawaz’s lawyer Amjad Pervez told the court that the co-accused in the case — Maryam and Capt (retd) Safdar — had been acquitted earlier this year.

“The allegations levelled against them included aiding the crime. Islamabad High Court’s acquittal of the co-accused is final,” the lawyer said, as he read out several sections of the NAB Ordinance.

Justice Aurangzeb added that in his view, the court had acquitted the co-accused under the same NAB Ordinance sections.

“In the decision to suspend the sentence, we relied on several decisions of the Supreme Court. The decision to suspend the sentence gave the impression that the appeal was accepted.”

In response, Nawaz’s lawyer asked the court whether his client had to mention the price of the assets when they were bought when he disclosed his assets to the relevant authorities.

“The NAB had to present a comparison of income and asset value. After that, it had to be determined whether the value of the assets is more than the income or not. Without this comparative assessment, making more assets than income is not a crime.”

The lawyer mentioned that there were cases in which the value of the assets was known but not the income, noting that in such cases, the court declared that the case could not be made because the income was not known.

At this, Chief Justice Farooq said the properties that Pervez’s client had acquired were at separate times. The lawyer said he could provide the dates of the purchase of these properties.

“These properties were brought between 1993 and 1996. These properties have no link to appellant.”

He noted that the prosecution had not linked Nawaz to the properties in its reference.

Justice Aurangzeb asked the lawyer what was the first thing that the prosecution should prove when making its case. Pervez responded that first the prosecution would have to prove that the accused was an officeholder — and he listed two more things.

“The NAB was not able to prove anything. Panama verdict, JIT, and NAB investigation report did not prove Nawaz Sharif’s relationship with the property,” the lawyer said.

There is nothing in the reference that proves Nawaz’s relationship with the properties, he said.

Ex-FIA DG Wajid Zia, the lawyer said, also admitted that there was no evidence to prove Nawaz’s connection to the properties.

“In the indictment, it is stated that your assets are not in accordance with the declared income. However, no one was able to determine the value of the assets.”

Pervez said it was the NAB’s responsibility to prove that Nawaz had actually paid to acquire the property.

He mentioned that the institution also had to prove that the property was either in Nawaz’s possession or a benamidars (unclaimed). “But there is nothing to prove this.”

Justice Farooq asked whether all of this was the prosecution’s job. At this, the lawyer said, “Yes, this is the prosecution’s job.”

After hearing the arguments, which went on for around two hours, the court acquitted Nawaz.

Welcoming Nawaz Sharif’s acquittal in the Avenfield Apartment’s reference case, PMLN President and former premier Shehbaz Sharif Wednesday said “today he went to the court while Nawaz Sharif will produce himself in the Islamabad High Court and this was called a level-playing field.”

Talking to the media after appearing before an accountability court in Lahore in Ramzan Sugar Mills reference, he said the Sharif family suffered a great deal of hardship but Nawaz still bowed before the law.

“Nawaz Sharif ended his exile and came back to Pakistan. We always respected the judiciary,” he added.

Shehbaz Sharif said holding elections on time was a requirement of the law and democracy.

He said Nawaz will announce the party’s manifesto during the election campaign adding that they would be starting the campaign with full preparation very soon. Speaking about the May 9 incidents, he said the facilitation of perpetrators would be anti-national.

“A conspiracy to overthrow the army was hatched on May 9 and any democratic government will not tolerate treason,” he stressed.

Shehbaz said he always served the people of Pakistan with absolute honesty and left no stone unturned to save every penny of the public money.