LONDON: A London court judge on Friday ruled that the words used in a Daily Mail article for Shahbaz Sharif and his son Imran Ali Yousaf can be considered slanderous and constitute the highest level of defamation under UK law.
Justice Sir Matthew Nicklin of the London High Court ruled that the Mail on Sunday’s article alleging that Shahbaz corrupted UK taxpayers’ money carried the highest level of defamatory meaning for Shahbaz and Yousaf.
He was reading out an initial ruling after a meaning hearing for the case conducted virtually. A meaning hearing is held to debate the contents of contested content to see if it constitutes a legal offense.
He declared that the article against Sharif and Yousaf written by David Rose constituted “Chase Level 1 defamation” which means the highest form of defamation in English law, as the two were summarily declared guilty of corruption without being given any benefit of doubt.
Rose, in his article published on July 14, 2019, had alleged that Shahbaz and his son-in-law were involved in money laundering and embezzlement of British money meant for Pakistan’s poor.
The Daily Mail had contested that the words used in the article were not defamatory.
Statements by lawyers
Earlier, the lawyer for associated newspapers Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday said that “actual detailed evidence against Shahbaz Sharif” about corruption and the money-laundering allegation is “pretty limited and based on assumptions” but he “lives in a palace” in Lahore.
The lawyer, Andrew Caldecott QC said that Daily Mail “concedes” that there were money-laundering allegations against Shehbaz and his family members — and that the element of “political witch hunt” cannot be ruled out — but this doesn’t mean that there was no money-laundering as the paper alleges in David Rose’s article.
Justice Nicklin remarked at the start of the hearing that he has read the material put before him by both Daily Mail and Shahbaz Sharif’s lawyers. However, Justice Nicklin said he was aware that there were proceedings in Pakistan involving Shahbaz Sharif but he had “deliberately read nothing about proceedings in Pakistan because that’s not for me to read or know. I would rather not know what’s happening in Pakistan.”
The publication’s lawyer extensively quoted PM Imran Khan’s advisor Shahzad Akbar’s statement that the money-laundering investigation had started in Pakistan, leading to the discovery of a huge amount, while it was also revealed that Department for International Development (DFID) funds were “embezzled”. The lawyer also read excerpts of the article related to “cash boys” and “poppadom men”.
“The investigation is now moving on in Pakistan to find the source of these funds. This investigation is far from complete and Daily Mail has very limited information. Having established the scale of money laundering, the investigation is now moving to the next phase,” he added.
Adrienne Page QC, appearing for Shahbaz Sharif, told the judge that the Daily Mail article illustrated connections between Shahbaz and the UK government and then alleged that he was involved in corruption.
The lawyer took the court through the whole article and said the article was defamatory from the start till the end — lacking evidence but making baseless allegations of fraud and money-laundering.
“The Daily Mail article implicated the former chief minister Punjab Shahbaz Sharif as involved in suspected theft of UK taxpayers money. That was hugely damaging and ashamed Mr Sharif in the eyes of the British readers and to readers in Pakistan, a country which benefits hugely from the UK’s aid to its country. The suggestion that his administration was involved in stealing the UK’s money was a grave allegation.”
She further said that the article declared that he was “guilty of corruption” and “beneficiary of the laundered money from the UK. The allegation of laundered money was conveyed as a fact in the article. “Whose money has been stolen? Money laundering is criminal misconduct, but who was victimized and where is the proof? Where is the stolen money? Where is the evidence? Where is the evidence of kickbacks and misappropriation?”
The lawyer said that Shahbaz’s son denied the money-laundering and corruption allegations, but the paper used Akbar and Transparency International’s statements to slander her client.
“The headlines, the captions, the build-up of the article, Mail on Sunday’s campaign against overseas funding, the end of the article. This was all defamatory. This is the heart of it all that that claimant is a beneficiary of the laundered money,” she told the court.
Barrister Victoria Simon-Shore appeared for Shahbaz Sharif’s son-in-law Imran Ali Yousaf. She told the court that her client rejected all allegations of corruption, misuse of funds, and money-laundering. She said the allegation in the article that Yousaf “mysteriously accumulated” money because his in-laws were in power was far from the truth.
“The investigations are ongoing and nothing has been determined. The presumption of innocent till proven guilty applies,” she told Justice Nicklin.
The Mail’s lawyer defended the publication of the article and said that it was in the public interest and it always happens that investigations are carried out after such stories are published pointing out wrongdoings.
It is pertinent to mention here that the paper had alleged that Shahbaz Sharif was involved in corrupting the funds given to Pakistan by the British taxpayers.
The report said the DFID poured more than £500 million of the UK taxpayers’ money into Punjab in the form of aid during Shahbaz’s tenure as chief minister.
The PML-N president has said that he and his family couldn’t have taken any money from the earthquake fund because the quake was in 2005 — before he became Punjab’s chief minister.