ISLAMABAD: The Islamabad High Court (IHC) on Thursday decided to hear PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif’s appeal against his conviction in the Al-Azizia reference on merit.
This means that the court will be hearing the actual substance of the case which includes the charge, the defence, the weight of evidence, etc., as opposed to matters of procedure or jurisdiction.
The decision was taken by a division bench comprising IHC Chief Justice Aamer Farooq and Justice Miangul Hassan Aurangzeb. The same bench had acquitted the PML-N leader in the Avenfield reference on November 29.
The Al-Azizia Steel Mills corruption reference pertains to a case in which he was sentenced to seven years in jail on Dec 24, 2018. He was also fined Rs1.5 billion and US$25 million.
The reference pertains to the Sharifs being unable to justify the source of the funds provided to set up Al-Azizia Steel Mills and Hill Metal Establishment (HME) in Saudi Arabia.
The IHC had declared him a proclaimed offender in the case in December 2020. After leaving for London on medical grounds, Nawaz remained there for nearly four years and only returned to the country in October this year.
Soon after his return, Nawaz had formally filed two separate applications seeking restoration of his appeals against the conviction in reference.
In the application, the PML-N supreme leader had said that while he was abroad for medical treatment, the pending appeals were dismissed for non-prosecution. The application requested the court to revive the pending appeals to decide on these pleas on merit.
The IHC had on Oct 24 revived Nawaz’s appeals in the two reference.
Ahead of the hearing today, Nawaz arrived at IHC along with senior PML-N leaders Ishaq Dar, Azam Nazeer Tarar and others.
As the proceedings commenced, PML-N lawyer Amjad Pervaiz said his client’s appeal was against the Dec 2018 verdict in the Al-Azizia reference.
Justice Farooq inquired if the case was linked to the Panama Papers to which Pervaiz replied in the affirmative. The lawyer said three references were filed in the Panama cases: Al-Azizia, Avenfield and Flagship Investment references.
“An accountability court had acquitted Nawaz in the Flagship reference,” he recalled, adding that the aforementioned three references were the outcome of one Supreme Court judgment.
Elaborating Nawaz’s appeal, the lawyer contended that a single reference should have been filed against the PML-N leader as all the three references mentioned accusations of holding assets beyond means.
In Al-Azizia reference, Pervaiz continued, there were a total of 22 witnesses of which 13 had recorded their testimonies. However, none of them were eyewitnesses, he highlighted.
“In this case, only Wajid Zia and Mehboob Alam are lead witnesses,” the PML-N counsel added.
Here, the IHC CJ inquired about the charges in the said reference. “Assets beyond means,” Pervaiz replied, pointing out that the Al-Azizia Steel Company Private Limited was registered in Saudi Arabia in 2001.
He went on to say that the Hill Metal Establishment was established in Jeddah in 2005-2006, which is owned by PML-N supremo’s son Hussain Nawaz. “It is a well-established fact that the Hill Metal Establishment was set up after selling Al-Azizia company,” he contended.
At one point during the hearing, the NAB prosecutor brought up the video scandal surrounding former accountability judge Arshad Malik and asked the court to first look at petitions regarding that.
To that, Justice Aurangzeb said it was up to the petitioner if he wanted to pursue the matter as pleas pertaining to the same were filed in the court. “We can set up a screen here and play the video,” he stated.
But don’t forget this can also become a “double-edged sword”, the judge warned.
However, the PML-N counsel said his client did not want to press the matter as the said judge had passed away. Pervaiz then read out loud the SC judgment in the Panama Papers case.
“We have two options after the SC verdict. First is that we call for evidence ourselves and decide the case on merit. Second is that we remand the reference back to the accountability court,” the IHC CJ said.
Meanwhile, Justice Aurangzeb highlighted that if the case was sent back to the accountability court, Nawaz Sharif would be considered accused, not convicted. “Trial court will have to again decide on the case,” he added.
The judge added that if the NAB’s attitude remained the same then the PML-N would not have any problem.
Here, Azam Nazeer Tarar said: “There have already been a lot of injustices committed against Nawaz. We request that this court decide on Nawaz Sharif’s appeal on merit.”
At one point, the NAB prosecutor requested the court to send the reference back to the accountability court. However, the IHC rejected the request and decided to hear the case on merit.
Subsequently, the PML-N counsel began presenting arguments on the merit of the appeal. He said Hussain had sent an amount to Nawaz in 2017 via a banking channel four years after the Hill Mill Establishment was set up. The lawyer stated that the amount was also shown in tax returns.