ISLAMABAD: While members of the five-judge Supreme Court bench that conducted marathon hearings into the Panama Papers scandal are busy authoring what is being billed as one of the most important judgements in the country’s history, speculation is rife about what the outcome of the case may be.
Before closing the final hearing into Panamagate, the bench announced on Feb 23 that their decision would have to be one that remained relevant and valid for at least 20 years.
Read: Suspenseful wait begins as Panama trial concludes
The case filed by various petitioners — Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf chief Imran Khan, Jamaat-i-Islami emir Sirajul Haq and Sheikh Rashid Ahmed — essentially seeks disqualification of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif over his alleged misstatement in his address to the nation on April 5 and his speech before the National Assembly on May 16, 2016.
The petitioners claim that the prime minister lied about the investments made by his children in offshore companies, which led to the acquisition of four apartments in London’s upscale Park Lane neighbourhood.
While nobody is willing to stick their neck out, there is a general consensus that whatever the court’s decision, it will strengthen the apex court’s powers to intervene for the enforcement of citizens’ fundamental rights in future cases.
“It is difficult to guess what dimension [of the case] the Supreme Court will consider while writing the judgement, since there were many that came to light during the proceedings,” a senior lawyer said on condition of anonymity.
He said that it was too early to presume whether the court would actually consider the papers released by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) or not.
Legal experts say Sharif family’s failure to challenge leak’s veracity ‘amounts to admission’
The court could focus on the controversy regarding the admissibility of the material that had been placed on the record, he added.
During proceedings, the bench repeatedly raised doubts over the evidentiary value of the Panama Papers and the newspaper clippings filed before it.
On different occasions, the court dubbed the documents submitted by both sides “hearsay”, highlighting that both the leaked documents and the Qatari letters did not meet the stringent criteria of the Qanoon-i-Shahadat (Law of Evidence).
Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) President Rasheed A. Rizvi was of the view that it would be difficult for the court to accept or reject the documents contained in the Panama Papers leaks, since they had not been submitted under oath by a witness, who could have been cross-examined to determine the authenticity of their source.
At the same time, the Sharif family and other respondents have not questioned or denied the allegations contained in the documents.
“In numerous countries authorities [have] launched investigations based on the Panama Papers revelations,” said Frederik Obermaier, investigative reporter at the German publication Süddeutsche Zeitung, which first obtained the Panama Papers documents.
The European Union (EU) formed a Committee of Inquiry into Money Laundering, Tax Avoidance and Tax Evasion to investigate the Panama Papers revelations.
In Iceland, Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson failed to explain his links with Wintris Inc, a company in the British Virgin Islands that held shares in one of Iceland’s failed banks, leading to his eventual resignation.
Former UK prime minister David Cameron had to face embarrassment when it emerged that his late father’s offshore investment fund Blairmore Holdings Inc. did not pay any UK taxes on its profits.
In addition, Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond told parliament in Nov 2016 that 22 people were under investigation for tax evasion and 43 high net-worth individuals were “under examination”, the Guardian reported.
In Malta, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat is under increasing pressure after the EU committee described a case involving his cabinet minister, Konrad Mizzi, as a “textbook case of money laundering”.
In Hong Kong, Reuters reported that the Financial Services and Treasury Bureau is looking to impose anti-money laundering laws on non-financial businesses and requiring private companies to disclose their true owners.
And in Panama, the country thrust into the global spotlight as the tax haven of choice for those looking to stash their wealth, the two owners of Mossack Fonseca have been charged with money laundering and destroying evidence of a bribery scandal.
“To my knowledge, apart from Pakistan, the authenticity of the Panama Papers documents has not been seriously questioned in court in any country worldwide,” Mr Obermaier said when asked about the veracity of the documents.
Accepting the legal principle involved, senior counsel Chaudhry Faisal Hussain said that the Sharif family’s failure to challenge the Panama Papers’ veracity in any court in Pakistan or abroad amounted to an admission.
“The message is more important than the messenger,” he said, recalling that one of the judges on the bench hearing the Panamagate case had observed that the allegations levelled by the petitioners did not seem frivolous.
But in the opinion of former additional attorney general Tariq Khokhar, the Panama Papers contains the official records of certain offshore companies, which does have an intrinsic evidentiary value.
“They were the basis of the Supreme Court case,” he said, “hence their evidentiary value cannot be denied. But it is for the judges to decide whether or not they are sufficient basis for a finding against the prime minister.”
He pointed out that UK’s parliament had deemed the Panama Papers sufficient proof for a complete disclosure from former prime minister David Cameron.
“But here, there has not been any disclosure; neither before parliament nor in the Supreme Court,” Mr Khokhar said.