Chronicle of a death foretold

Chronicle of a death foretold
The passing of Begum Kulsoom Nawaz Sharif in a faraway clinic in London without her husband and daughter in attendance has revealed a particularly ugly dimension of politics and justice in Pakistan.

A year ago Begum Kulsoom was diagnosed with throat cancer. When Maryam and Nawaz Sharif sought permission from court hearings to attend to her terminal illness in London, they were denied it except on one occasion. Later, when they sought bail pending an appeal against their conviction in one case so that they could be by her side in her last moments, this too was denied. It may be recalled that, on the sole occasion when they were permitted to travel to London to meet her, both duly returned to Pakistan to face a predictable verdict of guilty and imprisonment on the eve of the general elections.

Maryam and Nawaz Sharif’s trials and tribulations must rank as one of the most unjust episodes in Pakistan’s judicial history. As a thrice elected prime minister, he was hounded for two years before being hung out to dry as a local Don Corleone by a judicial verdict pegged to an insignificant “undeclared but unreceived” income accrued during the term of his exile abroad on the orders of a military dictator. Later, he was denied exemption from over 100 personal appearances in the courts, even though the record showed that two ex-prime ministers, Yousaf Raza Gilani and Raja Pervez Ashraf, facing far more serious corruption charges, had been granted permanent exemption from such appearance. On several occasions – September 2017, February 2018, March 2018 and June 2018 – both Maryam and Nawaz Sharif cited Kulsoom’s deteriorating condition in a London clinic as a reason for seeking relief so that they could see her but on all save one occasion, in November 2017, this was denied.

The response of certain leading politicians and media persons to the Sharifs’ predicament has been disgusting. A clutch of leading lights of the PPP, some renowned for their services to the cause of justice and human rights, publicly mocked the Sharifs for drumming up the “stunt” of Kulsoom’s terminal illness to evoke public sympathy and evade imprisonment. Conspiracy theories were also advanced to argue that the Harley Street clinic in which she was being treated in London was not a proper hospital for cancer treatment and was only issuing false reports of her illness because it was partly owned by the Sharifs. In the same ugly vein, over a dozen pro-establishment TV “analysts” constantly peddled such lies day and night. We refrain from naming names because a few have had the decency to apologise for their behavior.

During this time, we have perceived how pressure has been exerted on judges high and low to give “suitable” judgments against the Sharifs. Some good judges have recused themselves from the trials rather than become handmaidens to injustice while other similarly non-complaint ones have been shunted from one bench to another, and so on. It is one long tale of inhumanity and injustice.

For Nawaz Sharif, this is another painful stake in his heart. One state-actor did not allow him to bury his father in Lahore. Another has not allowed him to attend to his wife’s illness and only paroled him for five days so that he can bury her in Lahore. The scars of the first have not healed even as new emotional wounds are being inflicted upon him.

Tragically, there is a history of such injustice and inhumanity of state-actors against Pakistan’s politicians. The people’s prime minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was convicted for murder on the bare confession of an approver, kept in solitary confinement and executed in a prison yard. Dr Nasim Hasan Shah, one of the honourable judges who sent him to the gallows, later wrote a mea culpa admitting how he and his fellow judges were pressured to hold him guilty. Mr Bhutto’s brave daughter, Benazir, was imprisoned and exiled, kicked out of office twice and finally assassinated. She was buried in the family graveyard along with her two murdered brothers and father.

The assassination of reigning or aspiring Emperors, Kings, Queens, Princes, Nobles and Courtiers was common in medieval times. Where and when necessary, executions of political opponents were legitimized by the religio-judicial clergy. But modern democracies have evolved to sanction a separation of powers between the executive and legislature, install an independent judiciary with due process and place the military firmly under the control and command of elected civilians. By these yardsticks, as unfolding events continue to confirm, Pakistan is a pock-marked, stricken “democracy”.

The political environment in which Begum Kulsum died in faraway London while her spouse and daughter were languishing in prison at home has created a sympathy wave amongst friends and foes alike. The injustice and inhumanity of it is palpable. Another bad memory is now firmly etched into the collective psyche of this nation. The chronicle of a death foretold will add to conflict in this bitterly divided nation.

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.