NYC Pakistanis Welcome Political Accountability, But…

The disqualification from parliament and subsequent resignation of Nawaz Sharif as Pakistan’s prime minister has left Americans of Pakistani origin divided over the way he was dismissed. However, there is a broad consensus that Sharif’s fate is a good start in making those in power accountable, and that it will strengthen democracy in the South Asian nation.

Sharif’s removal is being seen as a major political victory for his main political rival and former cricket star Imran Khan, who spearheaded a campaign against Sharif’s four-year rule, accusing him of financial corruption and amassing wealth illegally. Khan heads the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Pakistan Movement for Justice) party, also known by its abbreviated name PTI.

Thousands of people gathered in response to Khan’s call at Islamabad’s Parade Ground on Sunday (July 30) to observe a “thanksgiving day to celebrate Pakistan’s victory against corruption.”

His energized supporters in the U.S. are also celebrating Sharif’s removal. Some of Khan’s supporters gathered at the under-renovation Diversity Plaza (a narrow strip on 37 Road between 73 and 74 streets in Jackson Heights, Queens, on Friday evening (July 28), hours after Sharif’s disqualification. Jackson Heights is home to a large population of immigrants from Pakistan.

Holding large party flags with Khan’s photo on them, the mostly young enthusiasts distributed sweets among themselves and the many passersby on the busy street. They danced to the beats of dhol, a double-headed drum widely used in folk music in India and Pakistan.

Boota Sheikh, the drummer, wearing a yellow shalwar qameez (the traditional Pakistani baggy trousers and a long shirt) and a waist coat, drove from Brooklyn’s Little Pakistan-famed Coney Island Avenue especially for the event and kept Khan’s supporters on their toes with popular drumbeats.

Sheikh had a busy day as Khan’s supporters from all over New York City were hiring his services. “I have so far done two PTI events in Brooklyn,” he told Voices of NY, adding: “I haven’t checked my cell. I am sure I have more requests coming in.”

A five-member bench of Pakistan’s Supreme Court unanimously disqualified from parliament Sharif, his son-in-law Mohammad Safdar, close aide and relative Ishaq Dar, who also held the portfolio of finance minister in his cabinet, on July 28, following months of investigations and court hearings. Sharif denies the corruption charges. His party has announced it will file a review petition in the Supreme Court to reverse his disqualification.

In its July 28 landmark verdict, the court ordered Pakistan’s accountability office, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), to try Sharif, his children, his son-in-law and Dar on corruption charges and decide the cases within six months. NAB announced on Monday (July 31) that it will file four corruption cases against Sharif, his family and Dar.

Sharif has named his younger brother Shahbaz Sharif as his successor and picked former oil minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi as interim prime minister for 45 days.

Sharif’s troubles started in April 2016 when the massive Panama Papers leaks of documents created by Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca revealed his children’s expensive property holdings in London through offshore companies. The holdings had never been disclosed by Sharif or his children in their wealth statements provided to Pakistan’s tax authorities and election commission.

A better future?

Like in Pakistan, the mood among those in Jackson Heights was mixed. While Khan’s supporters were upbeat about the future of democracy in Pakistan, there were voices of skepticism and criticism of the court verdict, even though none opposed accountability of the powerful.

“What happened is that people who thought they are untouchable, they were touched,” said PTI New York leader Pervez Riaz. Calling the former prime minister a “godfather,” Riaz, a contractor by profession, said regardless of Sharif’s future, “I see Pakistan’s future as better. The small mini-godfathers will be the next in jail.”

Faiq Siddiqui, another longtime supporter of Khan, complemented Riaz’s point. “It’s an enormous decision and it will change the direction in Pakistan.” He thought there would be “some” political turmoil but that will not last long. “I feel that they will have some shocks, a little bit, not much.”

Sadia Taqi, another Khan supporter, agreed. “The future is brighter and I will tell you how. We have a leader, someone like Imran Khan who has been, for the past 21 years, trying vigorously to change, to [work for] the betterment of Pakistan.  And Inshallah (God willing) we will have him.”

Taqi, who works as a fashion designer, also foresaw political turbulence. “I do foresee it because whenever there is change in the waters, there is always turbulence.”

Taqi’s friend Faryal Aslam, a student of forensic psychology at John Jay College, had identical views but said Sharif’s departure did not mean “change” had really come to Pakistan. “It’s like a glacier. When it starts melting, it eventually is going to melt away.”

Rafiq Ahmad, a 31-year-old doctor, who briefly stopped by to show his support for Sharif’s disqualification, said the decision would strengthen democracy in Pakistan.

Rally at Diversity Plaza on July 28 in support of Imran Khan. (Photo by Jehangir Khattak for Voices of NY)

Asif Beg, a Brooklyn-based contractor, thought that after the court’s verdict, the powerful in Pakistan will think of their accountability before committing any crime. However, he added that if other politicians were not held accountable like Sharif, then “nothing will change.”

New York-based Laeeq Ahmad, the self-styled leader of the Tehrik-e-Mahsba (Movement for Accountability) party, who was parading around with a large Pakistani flag, said more people should be tried on corruption charges.

The skeptics and critics

Few Pakistani immigrants protested Sharif’s dismissal publicly in the enclaves across the city with a sizable population of immigrants from Pakistan. However, there were some who minced no words in opposing the court verdict.

It is to some extent disappointing,” said Dr. Ghous Muhammad, dean of the School of Law at the University of Karachi, in an interview. Dr. Muhammad, currently on a private visit to the U.S., is a former judge of Sindh High Court (the highest court in Pakistan’s southern Sindh province) who lost his job in 2000 after he refused to serve under former military dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf following a military takeover and the suspension of the Pakistani constitution on Oct. 12, 1999.

“Nawaz Sharif did not get a fair trial,” he told Voices of NY over the phone. “The court should have heard Sharif’s lawyers after the court-appointed investigators had submitted their report and should have referred the matter to the election commission, rather than disqualifying him.” The former judge said that the Supreme Court’s action has effectively denied him the right to appeal. “His review petition will be heard by the same bench that disqualified him,” he said, adding that there is little chance of changing the decision unless Sharif’s attorneys come up with new evidence to prove his innocence.

Shahid Meher, a New York-based attorney who practices immigration and civil law, agreed with Dr. Muhammad. “Some people think that accountability has started in Pakistan but the judgment seems to show that the intentions were mala fide.”

Meher believes Pakistan will experience more instability and heightened court battles as there may be more petitions in the courts seeking disqualification of members of parliament under a controversial constitutional provision (added to Pakistan’s constitution by former military dictator Gen. Zia ul Haq) that requires each member of Pakistani parliament to be honest.

“Only angels will be saved if this law is applied to all members of Pakistani parliament,” quipped Meher.

Agha Muhammad Saleh, who is the founder and executive director of the Jackson Heights-based community organization SUKHI, did not agree with the ground on which Sharif was disqualified. He said after a year-long trial, the court did not give its verdict on Sharif’s alleged concealment of assets. Rather, the decision pertained to his drawing salary from his son’s UAE-based company. “And that focus did not satisfy me.”

Humayun Beg Mirza, who moved from the Pakistani port city of Karachi 28 years ago, did not “like” either Imran Khan, Nawaz Sharif or former president Asif Ali Zardari, all of whom he accused of not being loyal to the country. “They all are thieves. They are not loyal to the country. They rob the country. They take the money and escape.”

An immigrant from India, a local gold dealer, observing the Diversity Plaza event from the sidelines, offered his take on Pakistan’s future: “Abhi aur labra honay wala hai” (More instability is coming).

One Comment

  1. Abdul Wadood Jhan says:

    The article is basically a reflection of Pakistani community, living in US. I was expecting that you will try to dig deep into the forces which in reality worked behind the curtain. And furthermore the international or at least the regional background of this drama. Because any change in Pakistan is usually a forecast of some big policy foreplay to a bigger design.

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