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Establishing offshore firms ‘no crime’, says SC judge while hearing JI plea on Panama Papers

Establishing offshore firms ‘no crime’, says SC judge while hearing JI plea on Panama Papers

The Supreme Court’s Justice Sardar Tariq Masood observed on Friday that establishing offshore companies is “no crime”, while hearing a Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) plea seeking action against all 436 Pakistanis named in the 2016 Panama Papers.

On Nov 3, 2017, the JI had, through an application, reminded the court of its pending petition filed by party emir Sirajul Haq in August 2016.

The hearing today was presided over by a two-member bench comprising Justice Masood with Justice Aminuddin Khan. Advocate Ishtiaq was representing the JI in court.

During the proceedings, the JI counsel requested the court to form a judicial commission to investigate those named in the Panama Papers. However, Justice Masood raised the question of how it could be done when other institutions existed to be approached for the matter.

Subsequently, the apex court adjourned the hearing for a month.

At the outset of the hearing, the JI counsel requested the apex court to constitute a judicial commission to further probe the Panama Papers case.

Justice Masood, while addressing the JI counsel, noted that the matter had been pending in the Supreme Court for the past seven years.

“Did you have to run a case against just one family? You had no interest in this case for the past seven years,” he said.

The justice further asked the lawyer why he had “delinked his petition” and why he had “not taken such a big relief from the five-member bench” that was previously hearing the case in 2017.

Upon this, Ishtiaq replied, “We want that the 436 people named in the Panama [Papers] are also investigated.”

To this, Justice Masood asked, “Why do you want to bypass the law? Should we close down all other institutions? Do you want all decisions to be made by the Supreme Court?

The top court judge observed, “Establishing offshore companies is no crime. How the offshore companies were established would be looked upon by the institutions.”

Here, Justice Khan highlighted, “We will not take any suo motu notice. [We] wish to say a lot of things but we will not.”

Addressing the JI counsel, Justice Masood went on to remark, “You remembered after seven years that it is a matter of public interest?

“At that time, a case was proceeding against a single family. That was also the Panama matter, this is also the Panama matter,” he added.

The judge asked, “Why did you not say in front of this court back then that it is everyone’s matter [and] it should be heard simultaneously?”

Justice Masood told Advocate Ishtiaq: “At that time, was this matter delisted upon your request? I do not want to say but it seems like something else to me.”

Reiterating that the 2017 bench had given him “such a big relief”, the apex court justice once again asked the JI lawyer why he did not ask the court to hear this case along with another.

He further asked, “Did you request any institution in [these] seven years that investigations be conducted? Where did you fulfil your responsibility?”

Recalling the JI’s plea to direct the relevant institutions to investigate those involved in the Panama Papers, Justice Masood said, “You did not complain to any institution in these seven years. Now, should the Supreme Court do all the work here?

“How can we order action against the 436 people without sending them a notice? There must be businessmen among the 436 people. Do you want to make them flee?”

Once again noting that “establishing offshore companies is no crime”, the justice observed, “What has to be reviewed is how that company was established. Issuing such an order against 436 people would be against justice.”

At one point during the hearing, the supreme court sought answers from the JI counsel as to how it could take action when the Federal Board of Revenue, the State Bank of Pakistan and the NAB already existed.

The court further asked, “If the Supreme Court constituted a judicial commission in the presence of these investigation institutions, then how will these [institutions] work?

It went on to recall that on Nov 3, 2016, the five-member bench of the same court had declared the Panama Papers case maintainable.

The court also raised the question of why were the relevant institutions — including the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), Federal Investigation Agency and the Anti-Corruption Establishment — not approached on the matter.

The apex court then adjourned the hearing for a month.

In August 2016, the JI emir had approached the apex court seeking action on the revelations contained in the Panama Papers.

In his original petition, Haq had requested the court to order the five respondents — the federal government through the parliamentary affairs ministry, secretaries of law and justice, finance and cabinet division and the NAB — to arrest all those culprits who had invested stolen money in offshore companies and bring the public money, which was illegally transferred to those companies, back to the country.

The JI had contended that though Pakistan was making supreme sacrifices in the war against terrorism, government officials, office-bearers in legal entities and citizens were making investments in offshore companies through illegal and corrupt means.

Thus, huge sums of money had been laundered or illegally transferred and parked in certain offshore companies without the knowledge of the state, causing massive financial losses to the nation and the exchequer.

The petition contended that these investments in offshore companies had, in fact, originated from public money through corrupt and illegal means.

It stated that a large number of public officeholders had been making investments in offshore companies and concealing the facts in the statement of assets they submitted to the authorities concerned.

Therefore, the petition emphasised, all such holders of public office were liable to be disqualified from their offices and should be punished.

However, it claimed, due to negligence and inaction on the part of the government agencies, the due process of accountability was not being followed in a transparent manner. It added that the prevailing accountability regime under NAB did not seem like across-the-board accountability.

The illegal transfer of national wealth for investment in offshore companies should be declared an offence under Section 9 of the National Accountability Ordinance and the court should order a trial of all those who made such investments through corrupt means by a commission of inquiry under the country’s relevant laws, it said.

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