Pakistani opposition leader Shahbaz Sharif
Pakistani opposition leader Shahbaz Sharif waves while being escorted by officials at Lahore High Court after his bail was rejected, in Lahore, Pakistan, Monday, Sept. 28, 2020. Image Credit: AP

Islamabad: Shahbaz Sharif, Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) president and opposition leader, was arrested in a money laundering case from the Lahore High Court (LHC) on Monday. The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) officials took him into custody from the court premises after his bail plea was rejected. The LHC two-judge bench denied the bail petition filed by the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly on charges of money-laundering and maintaining asset beyond his sources of income.

The arrest is the latest setback for Pakistan’s opposition and particularly the Sharif family facing allegations of widespread graft, which the two brothers, Shahbaz Sharif and Nawaz Sharif, deny and claim “as politically motivated.” Meanwhile, Islamabad accountability court also indicted former president Asif Ali Zardari and his sister Faryal Talpur in the money laundering case.

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PML-N decry the arrest

Hours after the arrest, the top leadership of the PML-N held a press conference and strongly criticised the decision. PML-N Vice-President Maryam Nawaz said that her uncle Shahbaz was “not arrested for corruption or accountability” but for standing by his brother, Nawaz Sharif. “He was arrested in the middle of the reference” and the only reason Shahbaz was detained was that he stood by his brother “unwaveringly”. Shahbaz, she said, had made it clear that even if he was arrested, the speech made by PML-N supremo and former premier Nawaz Sharif at the opposition’s multi-party conference and action plan would be followed. “Shahbaz Sharif has been arrested only because he refused to play in the hands of those who wanted to use him against his brother. He preferred standing behind prison bars than to stand against his brother,” Maryam said in a tweet.

Money-laundering case against Shahbaz
Shahbaz has been accused of being a beneficiary of assets beyond means and committing offences of corrupt practices under the provisions of the National Accountability Ordinance 1999 and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2010. Nearly 20 people had been nominated in the case, including Shahbaz’s wife Nusrat, his sons Hamza and Suleman and his daughters Rabia Imran and Javeria Ali. Shahbaz accumulated assets worth Rs7,328 million “in connivance with his co-accused family members, front persons and close associates [...] developed an organised system of money laundering”, according to NAB.
At the same time, the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) has discovered billions of rupees stashed in bank accounts of staffers of Suleman Shahbaz, the son of Shahbaz Sharif.
In December 2019, NAB froze 23 properties of Shahbaz Sharif, his two sons, Hamza and Suleman, and other family members in an investigation in the cases of income beyond means and money laundering.

Opposition reacts

PPP Chairperson Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari denounced Shahbaz’s arrest and demanded his immediate release. He claimed that the government was resorting to “dirty tactics” after the opposition launched its alliance, Pakistan Democratic Movement, to oust the PTI government.

PML-N information secretary Marriyum Aurangzeb alleged that the arrest was political victimisation by the government. Meanwhile, Information Minister Shibli Faraz, talking to a TV channel, said that the reference “should not be turned into a political case” as the decision had been taken by a court as a result of the opposition leader’s corruption.

Case proceedings

During Monday’s proceedings, NAB challenged the bail plea and told the court that Sharif’s arrest was required to interrogate him in the money laundering case. The accountability watchdog’s lawyer told the court that Shahbaz’s assets between 2008-2018 had increased multifold and the opposition leader could not justify and share details regarding the four apartments abroad, his businesses and income either.

Shahbaz has insisted that he was not involved in corruption “or taking a single rupee in kickbacks.” His legal counsel Azam Nazir Tarar said that the PML-N president’s arrest was unwarranted at this stage as Shahbaz Sharif had been regularly attending the court hearings. “What is the purpose of arresting him at this point?” he asked. Shahbaz was already facing two other references filed by NAB, he added.