A special court on Wednesday allowed the acquittal applications filed by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and his son, former chief minister of Punjab Hamza Shehbaz, exonerating them in a Rs16 billion money laundering case lodged by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA).
The FIA had booked PM Shehbaz and his sons, Hamza and Suleman, in November 2020 under Sections 419, 420, 468, 471, 34 and 109 of the Prevention of Corruption Act, read with Section 3/4 of the Anti Money Laundering Act. Suleman and another co-suspect had previously been declared proclaimed offenders by the court for their constant absence from proceedings.
Although PM Shehbaz and his son skipped Wednesday’s hearing, PML-N workers had gathered outside the court in anticipation of the verdict. There was celebration as Presiding Judge Ijaz Hassan Awan announced his short order, which he had earlier reserved after hearing closing arguments. The PML-N workers chanted slogans and distributed sweets upon hearing that the judge had ruled in Shehbaz and Hamza’s favour.
PM Shehbaz, who is in Kazakhstan to attend a summit, expressed his gratitude to God. In a tweet, he said it was a blessing to learn of his acquittal in a “fabricated, baseless and politically motivated money laundering case”.
“We stand victorious in front of the court, the law and the people, despite [facing] heavy-handed tactics, oppression by the state and the manipulation of institutions,” the prime minister added.
During the day’s proceedings, defence counsel Amjad Pervez had argued that none of the prosecution witnesses had nominated Shehbaz or Hamza in their statements recorded under Section 161 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.
He also accused the investigating officer of distorting the statements of some of the witnesses.
Referring to a case brought against Indian politician L.K. Advani, the counsel argued that the court hearing the case had refused to accept even video statements against the accused as evidence. He also argued that the prosecution was supposed to prove the allegations it had levelled in its challan but failed to do so.
FIA Special Prosecutor Farooq Bajwa, in his arguments, alleged that a suspect, Masroor Anwar, had been a trusted cashier for Hamza and had operated benami bank accounts for the father-son duo. He stated that Anwar executed four banking transactions on behalf of the suspects through the account of a deceased employee, Gulzar.
However, the prosecutor failed to substantiate this allegation from the case record despite being given 20 minutes by the trial judge for this purpose. Instead, he sought more time from the court, stating that the investigating officer had not brought the complete record of the case to court.
He concluded by pleading that the court dismiss the acquittal pleas filed by Shehbaz and Hamza.
Advocate Pervez said the proceedings against the petitioners had been prompted by mala fide intentions and ulterior motives. He said the registration of a series of cases in quick succession and repeated arrest of the petitioners were classic examples of misuse of the legal process at the behest of the former federal government.
He said there was no allegation of any loss to the public exchequer or any bank or other financial institution or even to a private person. He further said that there was no worthwhile evidence on the record as to the funds being the proceeds of crime, which, he pointed out, was an essential condition to attract the mischief of an offence under the Anti Money Laundering Act, 2010.
The counsel argued that the whole crux of the prosecution’s case revolved around the operation of benami accounts and transactions, which was not a scheduled offence either in the FIA Act, the Prevention of Corruption Act, or the Criminal Law Amendment Act.
He said there was a special law in the field on the subject, ie the Benami Transaction (Prohibition) Act of 2017, which had an overriding effect over all other laws and prescribed comprehensive mechanisms for investigation, trial and punishment. He said the FIA was neither the competent authority to register an FIR in this case nor did the court have any jurisdiction to try the offence.
He argued that the court should, on those grounds, allow the petitioner’s applications and acquit them.
After the hearing concluded, FIA prosecutor Bajwa told reporters during a brief interaction that the case challan had been filed by the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf government and that the current prosecution team had made no changes to either the challan or the case record.