ISLAMABAD - The Islamabad High Court (IHC) on Tuesday accepted appeals of the Sharif family seeking transfer of the two remaining references against them from the court of Accountability Court judge Muhammad Bashir to another court.

The IHC dual bench comprising Justice Aamer Farooq and Justice Miangul Hassan Aurangzeb conducted the hearing of the appeals of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, his daughter Maryam Nawaz and Capt (retd) Muhammad Safdar and issued a short order which it had earlier reserved after hearing arguments of both sides.

Now, a new judge of the Islamabad Accountability Court will hear the two references — Al-Azizia Steel Mills and the Hill Metal Establishment (Flagship Investment) — against the Sharifs.

During the proceedings, former premier’s counsel Khawaja Haris maintained that the references filed by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) against Sharif family had a common witness — the Joint Investigation Team on Panama Papers head Wajid Zia — and accountability court Muhammad Bashir had already disclosed his opinion on crucial aspects in all three references.

In his arguments about different types of biases and interests of the trial court’s judge, Haris said that there was reasonable apprehension that the judge may have a conscious or unconscious pre-disposition with regards to the factual aspects of the case which were common to all three references and had been finally and conclusively decided in the Avenfield case.

NAB’s Deputy Prosecutor Sardar Muzaffar Abbasi opposed his arguments and requested the court to keep the cases before the same accountability court “in the interest of justice”. He said that judge Bashir was the senior-most in the subordinate judiciary of Islamabad.

He continued that since the judge had heard all the references against the Sharifs, the remaining references should also be heard by him.

The NAB prosecutor said that once the accused was indicted, then a reference cannot be transferred.  He opposed the demand to change judge in the case saying, “A judge cannot be removed from a case because he had given a verdict on a previous one.” He said that “if this precedent is set, then a new judge will have to be appointed for every other case”.

Muzaffar continued that judge Bashir had been hearing the case for the last 10 months and he was the most experience judge among all the available judge. “A good lawyer can change the mind of the judge through strong arguments and a better defence,” he said.  At this, Judge Miangul observed that the evidence was interlinked in all three references. “How can all these interlinked pieces of evidence be separated,” the judge asked. He said that this case was not an ordinary one in nature as it cannot be compared to the cases they hear daily.  Earlier, Haris concluded his arguments while mentioning similarities among all the three references. He had adopted that for an impartial and fair trial, a fresh judge was needed to be assigned to hear the remaining corruption cases against his client.

He said that after announcing his verdict in one reference, judge Bashir should not hear the other two references.

In his arguments, Haris asserted that Sharif had nothing to do with any properties mentioned in the corruption references and his (Sharif’s) children were dependants on their grandfather.

He also mentioned the similarities of the three references, including the common witnesses and defence. He pointed out that Sharif’s speech in the Parliament and his address to the nation was a common piece of evidence in all three cases.

Similarly, Haris maintained that the sources of income chart in Volume-IX of the JIT report, as well as Hussain and Hasan Nawaz’s interviews,  were common pieces of evidence. 

The counsel had adopted that he had taken the same plea in all the three references against the Sharif family while the accountability court had given its verdict in one reference. 

Haris said that the accountability court had announced the verdict in Avenfield reference case, while Al-Azizia and Flagship references were pending before the trial court. “Our defence in all the three cases is quite similar and the legal arguments are also the same,” he said.

He maintained that the court had already commented that mostly the children were dependent on their parents and how can it hear the same matter again.

On July 6, the accountability court sentenced Sharif to 11 years in prison and slapped a fine of £8 million (Rs1.3 billion) in the Avenfield reference, while his daughter Maryam was sentenced to eight years with a fine of a £2 million (Rs 335 million) and Capt (retd) Safdar was also given a one-year sentence in the same case.

The Sharifs had challenged their convictions in the IHC, highlighting the legal flaws in the Avenfield judgment and seeking to declare the verdict null and void and the three convicts may be released on bail.

An additional petition was also filed requesting the court to transfer the Al-Azizia and Flagship Investment references against the Sharif from accountability judge  Bashir to another court.

The appeals also said that JIT head and prosecution’s star witness Wajid Zia himself accepted that a response to the mutual legal assistance (MLA) request was not received. It further said that leveling allegations without receiving a response of the MLA was mala fide.

The legal counsels of the convicts argued that the prosecution’s witness Robert Radley not only stated that Calibri font was available for testing purposes but he also admitted having downloaded and used the Calibri font which was available as pre-release of Windows Vista known as BETA-1 since the year 2005 while simultaneously admitting that he was neither a computer expert nor an IT expert or a computer geek.