Finally the 5-member bench of the Supreme Court of Pakistan announced the ‘historic’ but split verdict in the much-awaited and rather much-anticipated Panamagate case last week. This bench has ordered the formation of a Joint Investigation Team (JIT), comprising a number of civilian investigative and military intelligence agencies, to ‘thoroughly investigate’ multiple allegations against PM Nawaz Sharif his family members. This verdict is ‘memorable’ at least in the sense that it was welcomed and equally celebrated by both the petitioners and the respondents in this case. Moreover, the 540-page judgement first establishes a strong presumption of guilt vis-à-vis the respondents by relying on a popular quote from Mario Puzo’s novel ‘The Godfather’, and later requires the allegations against the respondents to be probed. This may be another reason for its acclaimed historic legal significance. In fact, rather than the verdict, the Panamagate case itself is memorable one as it has essentially exposed a serving Prime Minister to a comprehensive judicial scrutiny for the first time in the history of the country.

The recent Panamagate verdict could not end the political and legal controversies relating to this scandal in Pakistan. Instead, it has given rise to more legal and political confusions and controversies on this issue. Political temperature in the country has visibly risen since the announcement of this verdict. The opposition political parties are demanding the Prime Minister’s resignation over this scandal. PTI is very likely to launch another street movement against the Prime Minister to make him step down. On the other hand, the ruling political party looks in no mood to yield to the current political pressure.

Presently, the efficacy and efficiency of the proposed JIT are being widely questioned. There exists a considerable confusion relating to the constitution, scope, powers, performance and modus operandi of the intended JIT. There are also many doubts whether this JIT could independently and effectively probe allegations against the head of the government. Moreover, the 60-day period is being considered too short to thoroughly investigate multiple charges relating to the complex financial transactions in the distant past involving the local as well as foreign jurisdictions. Obviously we are well-acquainted with the pace and performance of the officials of our investigate agencies who often fail to timely conclude investigation even in the petty matters.

Technically speaking, the Panamagate verdict was more an interim court order than a verdict in a strict legal sense. A verdict usually denotes a formal adjudication on a specific matter once a court conclusively determines all the legal and factual questions involved in any case on the basis of material available on the record. However, we hardly observed the similar judicial conclusiveness in the said verdict. The majority of the Judges of the bench could not arrive at any legal conclusion. Therefore, they ordered the formation of a JIT to further probe some important aspects of this case before drawing a conclusion.

One wonders why the honourable judges of the bench did not consider it appropriate to order the formation of an inquiry commission or similar JIT during the pendency of this case. In fact, this bench frequently underlined the need for a thorough probe while the proceedings were in progress in the apex court. This bench took almost two months to write detailed judgement in this case. Had this bench passed a similar probe order two months ago, the intended investigative or inquiry body would have completed the probe process by now. Therefore, this bench would be in a better position to finally adjudicate the Panamagate case now.

In my previous column titled “Panama Case: A legal perspective” published on January 18, 2017, I tried to exhaustively elaborate the jurisdiction of the apex court under Article 184(3) of the constitution. I discussed the propriety and constitutionality of the Panamagate case. I also maintained that the apex court is not legally empowered to conduct a full-fledged adversarial proceedings to adjudicate this case under the said constitutional provision. The apex court is primarily an appellate court. The scope of its original jurisdiction is also enshrined in the Constitution. I also predicted that there would arise many legal complexities when the apex court will try to act as a trial court in ordinary matters. So we have constantly been observing the legal controversies and complexities throughout this trial. As the apex court had already taken cognizance of the Panamagate case, therefore I only suggested a meaningful probe through an inquiry commission or by the officials of our investigative or accountability agencies, especially the NAB or FIA, to help this honourable bench reach a legal conclusion.

Ideally, our investigative and accountability agencies would have taken up the Panamagate as a soon this scandal first surfaced in April last year. Or otherwise, a judicial commission, essentially in line with the 2015 electoral rigging inquiry commission, would have been formed to deal with this matter. Unfortunately, this could not happen as the government kept on dilly-dallying over this issue. We all know that the apex court only reluctantly took up this matter in November last year. So it tried to play a positive role to avert a political crisis in the country that was apparently endangering the democratic institutions in the country at that time. Therefore, we shouldn’t doubt the sincerity and seriousness on the part of honourable judges of the apex court to solve this complex riddle.

PML-N has no reason to celebrate this verdict. Two of the judges of the bench have out-rightly passed judgement against PM Nawaz Sharif while the remaining three judges found some substance in these allegations and required further inquiry. The PML-N has been experiencing a roller-coaster ride since the commencement of Panamagate proceedings in the apex court. It would not be appropriate to called it a Panamagate case as it did not remain confined to the facts revealed by the Panama Papers. This case may aptly be termed as the Sharif family accountability case. These proceedings are covering the corruption allegations against the three generations of Sharif family. In the absence of specific legal procedure evolved by the five-member bench, this case readily became a free-for-all trial. So the petitioners freely and exclusively shaped the contours of this case.

Generally, a criminal trial is initiated on the basis of a specific charge against the accused in a court of law. However, in the Panamagate case, the apex court allowed the petitioners to raise all sorts of allegations of corruption and malpractices against the ruling Sharif family during the proceedings. Consequently, now the announced JIT will look into the diverse allegations ranging from the offshore accounts and assets allegedly owned by the Sharif family to their local businesses and intra-family financial transactions. So there is a perception that the respondents in this case have been denied the fair trial guaranteed under Article 10-A of the Constitution.

In fact, the legal team of the Sharif family is primarily responsible for the current miserable state of their ‘clients’. In the absence of any plausible explanation for the offshore accounts and assets allegedly owned by their clients, PML-N’ legal team had the only legal option to frustrate Panamagate proceedings in the apex court on technical grounds. Strangely, instated of pro-actively raising the plea of maintainability in this case, they let their clients to become a laughing stoke throughout the proceedings by producing the ‘Qatari letters’ before the bench.

One can analytically disagree with the Panamagate judgment, but can by no means dare to oppose the execution of this verdict. Indeed this valid verdict must be implemented in letter and spirit. The federal government must extend full cooperation to the apex court to constitute the proposed JIT. After the pronouncement of this verdict, now it is also morally incumbent upon the PM Nawaz Sharif to step down. Certainly, his continuation as the Prime Minister will tend to prejudice an independent investigation in this case. Indeed he can make any of his party loyalists step in temporarily. He can again occupy this position if the apex court exonerates him after the submission of the JIT report.

At present, PML-N is politically at a low ebb. In case Prime Minister does not step down at this stage, the opposition political parties, especially the PTI, would launch a strong agitation movement against him. Some representative bodies of the lawyers in the country have also hinted at joining hands with the opposition parties for this purpose. Indeed these agitation movements, along-with the visuals of JIT proceedings in the media, will damage both the troubled PML-N and its embattled leader beyond redemption. It would be quite disturbing for the entire nation to see their Prime Minister being interrogated by the subordinate state officials. Therefore, Prime Minister should save himself, his party and family members from further humiliation and disgrace by instantly stepping down.