July 21, 2017 |

The circumstances surrounding and events accompanying the Panama Papers remind me of two meetings I had with former premier Benazir Bhutto in March/April 1999 shortly before Ms Bhutto flew out into exile. One meeting took place in the presence of Barrister Masood Kausar and Rao Iqbal Sikandar. The other in the presence of a couple of journalists, including Talat Hussein and Ayaz Gul. Farhatullah Babar, the unflinching PPP support, may or may not remember but he was also present on both occasions.

Only hours before that conversation, Bhutto had spoken to the press at the Marriott Hotel, where she vented her frustration with the Ehtesab Bureau Court (headed by a former Sharif henchman Saifur Rehman). As she was explaining the highhandedness of the government, I asked her a question related to the Surrey Rockwood Estate that Asif Ali Zardari had bought a few months earlier. Instead of responding on the spot, she asked me to meet her at the Zardari House in F-8/2 later that evening. Just for five minutes, she said, waving to Babar sahib.

When I eventually met her in the presence of Barrister Kausar and Rao Sikandar that afternoon, we ended up interacting for nearly an hour. No admission of the Surrey estate though. “It’s all bullshit.” She also defended the news about millions of dollars in her foreign currency accounts. The law permits that, she said referring to the FOREX laws enacted by Nawaz Sharif.

But is that fair for a public representative not to declare the source of income, I quipped. I am not supposed to declare those things… I have earnings from my lectures. May be that is a bad law.

But did you ever attempt to amend a bad law, which has become a conduit for money laundering? No, may be we should have done it, she said.

And then the climax when I turned the conversation again on the Surrey Mansion (which Zardari eventually claimed as his property shortly before the UK authorities were to put it to auction in 2004).

Left with no plausible answer on the estate and the foreign currency accounts, Bhutto became emotional and a few tears began rolling down her cheeks. The media has been unfair on me, she said. You all have played into the hands of Nawaz Sharif. On that note the meeting ended.

Now, nearly two decades later, Sharif harbours similar grudges and complaints against media and the judiciary as well as the security establishment. Then it was the Surrey Mansion, now the story revolves around four flats in London.

And the primary question begging defensible legally acceptable answers is the sources of funds used for the purchase of the flats by the Sharif family, the Surrey Mansion, the Dubai Palaces of both Sharifs and Zardaris. The money trail for the flats is what the court wants to know, and hasn’t received as yet as of Thursday.

Now, regardless of the outcome of the Panama leaks case, it represents a historic opportunity for the senior judiciary to yet again prove its relevance to Pakistan’s political economy and the rule of law.

The apex court sits at the cusp of a watershed moment in Pakistan’s history; through its judgement in this particular case the court can convey many sobering and enlightening lessons to all and sundry in order to give a lie to the chorus of “conspiracy, exploitation and victimisation” begin raised by Sharifs and their supporters.

Firstly, the SC ruling can, as a preamble to its ruling, state that “democratic vote” does not constitute a carte blanche for those in power.

Secondly, it should also send a clear message to the people at large that don’t mistake or confuse accountability of one person with victimisation or attack on democracy. Accountability only strengthens the democratic processes, unlike the perception the incumbent prime minister and his cohorts are spreading. They are wilfully and grotesquely equating ‘calls for their personal accountability’ to attacks on democracy.

Thirdly, the court can certainly enlighten the people of Pakistan on the difference between the sanctity of people’s mandate i.e. the vote and the responsibilities it places on their elected representatives.

It is always a convenient cover to point fingers at security establishment and the judiciary for collusion against a “democratically elected government”. But what sort of democracy do we talk about? One person’s fall MUST not mean the doom of the system. Why do we have 342 elected members of parliament?

Fourth, those crying foul should be told that the accountability of generals and judges and media is the job of the civilian government. Once in power, the government possesses all the means to investigate and file cases against all those who it thinks abuse power and violate the constitution for personal benefits. The duty of the court in this regard is to be brutal with the lower trial courts who should be told to be indiscriminately result-oriented and not budge under pressure from any quarter.

Fifth, the current case offers a golden opportunity for the Supreme Court to refer the laws relating to foreign currency, gifts, amnesty schemes to parliament for a critical review. The ruling elites – particularly those in power – invented these laws to launder their own ill-gotten funds. These also became a convenient tool for lots of other Pakistanis to stash funds abroad or get them remitted in foreign currency. One of the common practices is to cut deals here, award lucrative contracts and have the kickbacks wired to Pakistan in foreign exchange or stash them in Swiss accounts. No questions asked, says the law. The court can perhaps appeal to all MPs to scrutinise and revise these laws, also to improve Pakistan’s performance on the money-laundering front.

Also, while gift or inheritance of an ancestral property makes sense, such transactions to the tunes of billions within the family – from father to son to daughter to father – make little sense in a situation when common taxpayers are hunted like criminals, and company accounts are frozen by the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) to deduct advance income taxes. Sixth, if some cases are referred to the National Accountability Bureau for criminal trial, they should be time-barred too so they can be concluded before they become means of propaganda for the accused. Lastly, State Bank of Pakistan can be asked to expedite investigations into the 200 cases of money laundering filed by the Financial Monitoring Unit (FMU) of the government to the FBR.

The FBR told the Senate Committee on Finance on July 18 that it is scrutinising 2,785 expensive gifts given to persons outside the family. Would be fantastic if the Supreme Court could time-bound the FBR and ask it to conclude these cases as new benchmarks for good governance, rule of law and accountability.

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