Finally, weeks after the uncertainty surrounding Nawaz Sharif’s departure from Pakistan for treatment abroad, the former prime minister is back in London.
The days leading up to his eventual but conditional exit from Pakistan had all the makings of an engrossing drama that is staple for a Pakistani audience honed on twists and turns of fate before lady luck intervenes to bail out the protagonist. Except that this is real life and it tested the mettle of key actors to the hilt before the air ambulance took off from Lahore, Pakistan’s art and cultural capital!
All of last week the news cycle in Pakistan was hooked to what seemed like a battle of attrition between the main opposition party — the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) named after Sharif but one which he no longer can lead in official capacity after being disqualified from holding public or party office by the Supreme Court for concealing assets and false testimony in poll nomination papers, and the ruling Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI) government.
Sharif is currently serving a seven year-prison sentence for conviction in one case, is on bail from two other corruption cases and facing another reference from the National Accountability Bureau (NAB). Interestingly, the current NAB chief, who remains vocal about uncompromised accountability, was an appointee of the Sharif government, which consulted the-then opposition leader from the Pakistan People’s Party to put him in office — a legal requirement.
Prime Minister Imran Khan has had a tightrope walk over the issue after medical reports emerged about Sharif’s deteriorating medical condition, which a panel of medical experts also verified as being serious enough to merit intervention.
The three-time former PM, who will turn 70 next month, is suffering from an immune system disorder, highlighted more recently by diving blood platelets, which caused an alarm necessitating taking him from the prison to hospital. Reportedly, diagnosis became an issue to the extent that the idea of seeking treatment abroad gained ground swiftly. As a result, his party approached the court which granted him an eight-week release.
Prime Minister Khan, whose entire political career and capital is pivoted around the anti-corruption mantra, and who relentlessly pursued the so-called Panama Papers case that first revealed Sharif family’s unexplained wealth and assets abroad and which eventually led to his ouster from power, put up the issue of any permission for Sharif’s treatment abroad before the federal cabinet where it ran into major opposition and made it difficult for the PM to simply issue a carte blanche.
Although the premier had wisened up to the reality of Sharif’s medical emergency and even hinted at it publicly in probable anticipation of being forced to ease him out, he was wary of the public backlash from his own constituency in the backdrop of rumours surrounding a possible “deal”. What made it more pronounced was the PM’s claim in the recent past that he had fended off pressure from some foreign powers to bail out Sharif.
After marathon meetings, the PTI government decided to allow the PML-N supremo to proceed for medical treatment abroad conditional to submitting an indemnity bond to the tune of Rs7.5 billion (or its equivalent in UK/US currency). The one-time permission would be for four weeks starting from the date of departure.
Announcing this in a presser, Law Minister Farogh Naseem spoke on various legal aspects of the decision which however, did not include removing Sharif’s name from the Exit Control List (ECL) since “under the law, the name of a convicted prisoner cannot be removed from the ECL” — a decision the government has stuck to despite letting out Sharif.
The minister also dismissed the notion that the indemnity bond was a political move, saying it was being sought as a guarantee only for Sharif’s return to fulfil legal requirements. He countered that the court and public could foreseeably question the government on what guarantees it had sought to allow a convict to proceed abroad.
That having said, the general impression is that despite drawing strong criticism from the PML-N over it what it called ‘playing politics’ over Sharif’s health, apparently, the PTI government threw in a proviso to dispel notions of a sell-out with a gambit to push the ball out of its court — and into the real one, on form. Expectedly, the PML-N moved Lahore High Court (LHC) to seek a judicial reprieve rather than being seen to pay what it publicly bemoaned as “ransom” to the government.
The LHC swiftly took up the case and, on an off-day, handed PML-N a convenient route by overruling the indemnity bond sought by the government.
In the end, Shahbaz Sharif, the younger brother of the ex-prime minister and current opposition leader, submitted a written guarantee to the court for his return after treatment, which paved the way for his flight to London on Tuesday.
While the LHC ruling has generated heat with the running interpretation amongst critics being that there was one set of law for the mighty and another for lesser mortals, Prime Minister Khan would be hard-pressed to completely ward off notion of a political compromise.
At a public meeting following the verdict, he seemed unhappy with the verdict and made it a point to appeal to the current chief justice of the Supreme Court and his forthcoming successor — by name — to “restore the confidence of the public in courts” by removing the perception that there is discrimination between the powerful and the weak, and that the application of law is equal for all.
However, two days later the chief justice retorted that it wasn’t appropriate to criticise the judiciary and that it was the government that allowed (Sharif) to go. While admitting that no institution was “perfect”, he said there was “a silent revolution in the judiciary”.
Before the top adjudicator’s response, the premier seemed to have tided over any remarkable adverse reaction because the LHC verdict was being largely interpreted in two ways; a humanitarian gesture or one that reinforced the ‘discrimination’ divide. He would now hope the optics of apparently taking a stand bears fruit with Sharif returning home at some stage.
l The writer is Features Editor. He tweets @kaamyabi
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