The curious case of the onus of proof | Pakistan Today

The curious case of the onus of proof

Another great mystery of our time

It was hardly rocket-science stuff, one would have thought. What with the quality of what passes for journalism in the Islamic Republic however – or are we witnessing the fruits of post-modernism? – on whom rested the onus of proof in the Avenfield case (whose judgement was announced on Friday) remained a mystery till the very end. (It’s the same with the other Sharif references being heard in the accountability court). I would be a very rich man if I had a dollar every time I heard somebody make a comment such as, ‘No Sharif corruption has been proved by the NAB yet…’ The delusions have of course ended in heart-break for the deluded, as they so often do, but how do such delusions manage to take such widespread roots in the first place?

It isn’t just the PML-N (M) rhetoric. Politicians would always say what suits them, and politicians in trouble have been famous for selling some extremely silly narratives. That’s all in a day’s work for them, and they manage to attract their share of adherents too. An interesting aside: A professor of Pakistani origin (who will remain anonymous) working in a renowned European center of learning, and who has made something of a name for himself in the field of Theoretical Physics (the one academic field where there’s very little room for poppycock), was heard making this comment during his recent visit to Pakistan: ‘Nawaz Sharif ko bete se tankhwa na lene par nikaala gya.’ Therefore, the passionate repetition on the part of patwaris that their leader is innocent because no concrete evidence has been produced against him is only one part of the picture.

Then there are the legal experts, some of whom are less than forthcoming about the NAB law. Many of the most vocal of lawyers have been part of one or more Sharif legal teams in the past, and – quite understandably – they have tended to talk about the ‘shifting’ of the onus of proof, muddying the waters unnecessarily. By not being completely honest about the NAB law, these legal experts constitute another part of the picture.

And then there’s the way some of our journalists have been shedding ‘light’ on the issue – and there’s a genuine cause for concern here. Take Munizae Jahangir, for instance, who is hardly a newcomer in journalism. On the eve of the Avenfield case judgment she expressed on a TV talk show her inability to understand all the talk about the Sharifs not having produced any evidence to exonerate themselves. She ‘explained’ that in the event of being accused of murder, as a defendant it isn’t she who needed to prove that she was innocent; instead, the burden of proof rested with the prosecution. She was quite right, of course. Only the Sharifs aren’t being tried for murder; they are being tried for financial crimes. The NAB law (under which the trial was taking place) is not very hard to obtain or read. And it’s not as if the case had started only yesterday, giving her insufficient time to do her homework. It’s anybody’s guess whether Munizae (with all her media experience) innocently didn’t know the difference between other crimes and financial crimes; or she deliberately chose to mislead her audience. Of course, one wants to give her the benefit of doubt and go for the less devastating possibility – provided there’s one. If it’s any consolation for her, she is by no means alone in this.

Of course, there was a part of the trial (a minor one) where the onus of proof was on the prosecution, but it was always clear that the prosecution won’t be able to bring that kind of evidence (after all, it’s not as if shady politicians are famous for issuing signed and stamped receipts in return for the kickbacks they receive in mega projects). For all practical purposes therefore, the trial was for assets beyond means, where the onus of bringing vindicating evidence was on the accused once ownership of the property had been admitted. NAB law article 9 (iv) deals with the former, while article 9 (v) deals with the latter.

Politicians will be politicians; and lawyers will be lawyers. However, one expects somewhat better from journalists on whom many rely for their information, especially when it comes to facts

Politicians will be politicians; and lawyers will be lawyers. However, one expects somewhat better from journalists on whom many rely for their information, especially when it comes to facts (as opposed to opinions). So, whether it’s by design or in innocence, the Munizae Jahangirs and the Ahmad Nooranis of journalism aren’t exactly doing justice to their profession, or to their followers for that matter. Although on a personal note, the spectacle of false hopes they help raise among those that take solace in their reports, followed by the inevitable dashing of them is quite amusing.  

Hasan Aftab Saeed

The author is a connoisseur of music, literature, and food (but not drinks). He can be reached at