The Supreme Court of Pakistan’s Panama Case verdict on 28th July 2017, which resulted in disqualification of the now former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, has sparked a new controversy in the country.
While many consider it to be a landmark judgement which has breathed new life into an ever-rotting system of accountability, there is also an opinion that disqualification of the Prime Minister on a petty issue has set a poor precedent and will haunt the nation in the years to come.
Leaving the legal argument aside, let us focus on some facts of the matter and analyze the different theories surrounding it.
The Joint Investigation Team (JIT) in its report on the offshore assets of the Sharif family submitted a key document which confirmed that Nawaz Sharif was employed by Capital FZE as chairman of its board at a basic salary of AED 10,000 per month from August 6, 2006 to April 20, 2014.
This document – a letter from Jebel Ali Free Zone Authority (JAFZA) dated July 4, 2017 – was not contested by the Sharif family or their lawyers. In fact it was argued that Nawaz Sharif took employment in his son’s firm merely to get the “iqama” which would facilitate him to travel in and out of UAE during the period of his exile.
It is claimed that he did not actively participate in the company’s business and no salary was ever withdrawn.
There are two fundamental flaws in this defense:
1. It takes an ordinary Pakistani citizen 1-3 days to be issued a visit visa for UAE based on sponsorship from a UAE resident, company or hotel. The application process is quite straightforward and should have been the same, if not easier, for a former Prime Minister of Pakistan who was in fact bailed out of serious corruption charges and rescued from possible sentences by the Gulf States, including UAE. On the other hand, to get the “iqama” or residence permit one needs to go to a local government hospital for a comprehensive medical checkup, and then provide the medical test results, salary certificate, tenancy agreement, documents verifying relationship between sponsor and applicant, etc. together with the application for residence permit.
For an employee residence visa, as in Nawaz Sharif’s case, one also needs to open a local bank account and then continue to receive the salary in it as per the UAE labor laws.
It is hard to comprehend why Nawaz Sharif felt the need to go through this longer and more inconvenient procedure in order to get a simple entry permit.
2. There are several ways in which a residence visa for UAE can be obtained, depending on the applicant’s need. An employee residence visa is required for a person who has received an employment offer from a company based in UAE. Another way is to get the relative residence visa.
A person who is a resident of UAE can sponsor his/her parents for this type of visa. This should have been the appropriate route for Nawaz Sharif if really a residence permit was required.
The question then arises as to why he applied for an employment residence visa when the nature of his residence was not employment and a clear legal alternative was available. Is it not tantamount to deliberate attempt to lie in the residence visa application form?
Now let us consider another theory which suggests that politicians use the iqama for money laundering, i.e. to hide their ill-gotten wealth. Money made from unfair means is transferred from the country of origin to where they hold the iqama.
It is then moved around the world as officially white money and eventually brought back into the home country in the form overseas remittances. The justification given for this claim is that when there is further offshoring, i.e. funds are transferred from UAE to other countries (United Kingdom, Switzerland, Luxembourg etc. in this case), the relevant authorities in these countries will not be answerable to the home country in case of an investigation, as the accused would be a UAE resident. Of course this claim could have been trashed as a conspiracy theory, if not for the following statement in the JIT report which seems to give weight to it:
“Moreover, irregular movement of huge amounts in shape of loans and gifts from Kingdom of Saudi Arabia-based company (Hill Metals Establishment), United Kingdom based companies (Flagship Investments Limited and others) and United Arab Emirates based Company (Capital FZE) to Respondent No. 1, Respondent No. 7 and Pakistan based companies of Respondent No. 1 and family have been highlighted.”
The much-talked about Volume X of the JIT report is believed to contain correspondence notes and documents from various countries under mutual legal assistance treaties.
It is speculated that authorities from Switzerland and Luxembourg have not responded to the JIT’s requests to disclose Sharif family’s assets in these countries.
Until this moment, it is simply a speculation but if found to be true, it will prove the importance of iqama to conceal stolen assets and will also dispel the theory that there is an international conspiracy against the Sharifs.
The complete truth of this matter is still shrouded in mystery. There are many theories, claims and counter-claims but very few established facts.
The Supreme Court of Pakistan has ordered references to be filed which will be settled in six months.
Let us hope that justice prevails in the end and all the dust surrounding the issue of Panama Papers is settled once and for all.