LONDON: Mian Shehbaz Sharif has triumphed over Associated Newspapers Ltd (Daily Mail) in the first stage of his defamation proceedings in relation to an article published by the newspaper which included unfounded allegations of embezzlement and money laundering.
In the London High Court, Justice Matthew Nicklin found that the story constituted Chase Level 1 defamation, which is the highest classification of defamation and establishes guilt.
The Daily Mail had published an article titled: “Did the family of Pakistani politician who has become the poster boy for British overseas aid STEAL funds meant for earthquake victims, asks DAVID ROSE”, which included unfounded allegations against Mian Shehbaz Sharif, claiming that in his role as Chief Minister Punjab, he misappropriated funds from the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID).
David Rose, the reporter writing for the Daily Mail had alleged that Shehbaz Sharif and his son in law, Ali Imran Yousaf were the primary beneficiaries of a complex money-laundering operation and also named several individuals in the UK and Pakistan who allegedly facilitated them.
Rose wrote: “Stolen millions were laundered in Birmingham and then allegedly transferred to Shahbaz’s family’s accounts by UK branches of banks including Barclays and HSBC.
“Self-confessed Birmingham money-launderer Aftab Mehmood told the MoS that he had his accounts audited every three months by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs – who failed to notice anything was amiss.”
Rose was in constant contact with Mirza Shehzad Akbar, an England educated barrister who heads the Asset Recovery Unit in Pakistan throughout the investigation of the story.
Shehzad Akbar has been quoted in 7 paragraphs of the story, while no significant or fair effort was made to engage with Mian Shehbaz Sharif and his family.
The story relied heavily on the evidence given by Mirza Shehzad Akbar while ignoring any counter-narrative which led to suspicions about the real motive behind such a baseless story which had not only caused grave harm to Mian Shehbaz Sharif but also to Pakistan and its a relationship with the UK.
Speaking to Rose, Suleman Shehbaz rebutted the story and had offered to meet to discuss the facts in more detail, however, Rose refused, saying that the story would be published immediately.
“This is a witch-hunt against my family. It is similar to what happened at Guantanamo Bay, and under apartheid in South Africa. There is a clique around Imran Khan which is trying to shut out the opposition and they are picking out my family members in order to harass them,” Suleman had told David Rose.
However, Justice Nicklin found that Suleman Shehbaz’s rebuttal was presented in a “vague and general manner which would not cause any doubt for the ordinary reader.”
Justice Nicklin held that a connection with UK aid was emphasised throughout the article and it would be very difficult for the reader to conclude how much UK money was embezzled.
It was argued that the headlines, the captions, and the build-up of the article were about the Mail on Sunday’s long-running campaign against overseas funding.
Daily Mail’s lawyer, Andrew Caldecott QC, conceded before the Honourable Court that no substantial evidence existed about any money laundering conducted by Mian Shehbaz Sharif but that Shehbaz Sharif owned a huge house with luxurious furnishings that displayed wealth.
The reporter had used this anecdote rather than any real evidence to make unsubstantiated and defamatory claims against Mian Shehbaz Sharif.
The counsel for the Daily Mail also told the court that no express reference to any money laundering by Ali Imran Yousaf was made in the article, however, readers could infer and conclude to that end, according to the style in which the story was written.
Mian Shehbaz Sharif’s entire claim has been constituted as Chase Level 1, the highest level of defamation while the first part of Ali Imran Yousaf’s meaning has been constituted as Level 1 while the second one is Level 2.
Andrew Caldecott QC asked the court for time to consult with their client regarding the decision and whether they would agree for this matter to go to trial.
He mentioned that it would involve substantial costs which is why he would need to seek advice from his client.
Justice Nicklin decided that the matter would go into pleadings first and that both parties could take a week to determine the next course of action, whether it would be short written submissions or a short hearing.
David Rose tweeted shortly after hearing. He said: “Contrary to some Pakistani reports, today’s hearing in the Shahbaz Sharif defamation case is strictly preliminary. The judgment sets the parameters for the eventual trial, which lies in the future: it determines what the court says the article means. It is NOT a final outcome.”
Responding to him, Peshawar based investigative journalist Arshad Aziz Malik said: “I think you have been used to defame opponents.”