This article was published in Arab News on July 05, 2023, at the following link
Self-exiled Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s three-time prime minister and the de facto head of his Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PML-N) party that leads the federal coalition government in the country at present, is visiting the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and holding a number of meetings with Pakistani political leaders, his party colleagues, and the host country’s leadership. He has traveled from London, where he had been living for the last four years for ‘medical treatment’ after a Pakistani court accepted his bail and allowed him to travel despite his conviction and jail sentence in a corruption case. Imran Khan, his political arch-rival, blamed Sharif for deceiving Khan’s government in a bid to escape from his prison cell and flee the country.
The wheel of fortune, however, turned full circle about a year ago when Imran Khan left the prime minister’s house through a vote of no confidence moved by the opposition in the parliament.
Today, Khan’s arrest in a number of cases seems imminent, as Sharif’s younger brother, Shehbaz Sharif, has become the country’s prime minister, and Sharif himself appears to be knocking at the door of the prime minister’s office. Nawaz’s return to Pakistan and assuming the post of the premier, however, is not so simple and straightforward.
Sharif was convicted in what is known as the ‘Al-Azizia Steel Mill case’ and sentenced to seven years in prison besides a hefty fine followed by disqualification to hold public office. While he managed to get bail on medical grounds and moved out of the country for treatment, the conviction and disqualification still stand.
The Supreme Court of Pakistan had earlier determined that Sharif was constitutionally not fit to hold public office and disqualified him for life using the frequently abused article 62(1)(f) of the constitution. But since there is no prescribed period for disqualification or for the majority of serious offenses mentioned in articles 62 and 63 of the constitution, the PML-N maintained that the court was under pressure to oust Sharif for life.
If Sharif has to come back to Pakistan and avoid resuming his jail term upon return, the conviction in the Al-Azizia case will have to be overturned by the court. Many legal experts think that there is a strong case for Sharif’s acquittal but it may take time because of the slow-paced justice system of Pakistan.
The lifetime disqualification clamped by the Supreme Court will also need to be undone. The pro-Sharif federal government introduced and the parliament passed a law on June 26 which amended section 232 of the Elections Act, 2017, specifying the period of disqualification as five years.
This law, unless challenged in a court and suspended or overturned, will arguably take care of the lifetime disqualification of not only Sharif but of some other affectees like Jahangir Tareen as well. Since a period of five years has already elapsed, Sharif’s disqualification, under the law, is not applicable any longer.
Some legal experts, however, think that since Sharif’s lifetime disqualification resulted after the Supreme Court’s interpretation of Article 62(1)(f) of the constitution, the interpretation enjoys the status of an article of the constitution and, therefore, cannot be undone through an ordinary law.
For that, experts say, either a constitutional amendment, for which the National Assembly doesn’t have the requisite 2/3rd strength of the total membership after the resignation of PTI MNAs, can undo the Supreme Court interpretation or a larger bench of the Supreme Court may revise the verdict on its own as the period allowed to file a review application has already expired.
A similar set of arguments also apply to the Supreme Court’s interpretation under which Sharif was removed as the president of his party despite the fact that the constitution or law does not have such a provision.
One of the key questions associated with the upcoming general election in Pakistan is whether Sharif will return to Pakistan to lead the election campaign of his party and whether his ‘disqualification for life’ to hold a public office or a party position will be reversed.
Apparently, Sharif has a strong case to tide over these legal hurdles but time is of the essence. If all goes according to the constitution, the electoral clock will start ticking by the middle of the next month. Will the legal battle keep pace with the electoral timetable is a million-dollar question. The Pakistani justice system is notoriously slow, most judges have already proceeded on summer vacation and would not return before September. Looking at the recent trend of the Supreme Court judgments and the tirade of government legislators against the courts in the parliament, an early and favorable judgment for Sharif seems to be an uphill task.