Panama Papers and SC verdict: Relief for Nawaz Sharif is temporary

He has little support in the present situation, with the opposition parties aligning against him.

 |  5-minute read |   22-04-2017
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Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has, for the time being, survived the corruption allegations levied against him. The country's Supreme Court on April 20 ordered a new investigation which would seek testimony from Sharif and his two sons.

Sharif and his family have been under opposition and judicial spotlight following the Panama Papers scandal - a major international leak of documents last year (April 2016) from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca.

The documents contain confidential attorney-client information for more than 2,14,488 offshore entities. The papers revealed how offshore companies are used to hoard assets and exposed multiple high-profile personalities across the world.

Immediately after the leaks, Iceland’s PM was forced to resign as the leaks pointed that his family sheltered assets offshore. CNN reported on April 4, 2016, that the “documents refer to 12 current or former world leaders and 128 other politicians and public officials”.

The Panama Papers put Sharif and his family in probably the worst crisis he has experienced in his political career. Sharif, in his long political career, has fought many legal battles but for the first time allegations have been based on reports by international journalists and not the opposition party in Pakistan.

For the last one year, Sharif and his family have witnessed a trail of accusations inside and outside the judicial domain. On April 3, 2016, the International Consortium of Journalists (ICJI) made public Mossack Fonseca documents on offshore entities, of which eight off-shore companies reportedly have links to Sharif’s family.

The paper Dawn (April 3, 2016) reported that according to the documents available on the ICJI website, Sharif’s children Maryam, Hassan and Hussain “were owners or had the right to authorise transactions for several companies”.

The latest revelations revived the existing allegations of corruption against Sharif, and at the forefront of the battle is the Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI). Sharif did defend himself and opened himself to a judicial probe in the matter.

Dawn (April 5, 2016) reported that he said “my family was not involved in politics till much later, as such, even before I got into politics, we were an established business family”.

khan1_042217081118.jpgImran Khan's PTI has moved a petition seeking disqualification of Sharif from his office as well as the National Assembly. Photo: Reuters

Sharif, clarifying his position on May 16, 2016, on the floor of parliament said: “I can say with surety that… not a single penny went out of Pakistan”.

Khan's PTI moved a petition seeking disqualification of Sharif from his office as well as the National Assembly. It also conducted protest rallies and invited thousands of supporters from all across the country to join the so-called “Accountability Movement”, seeking a fair trial on the charges levied against Sharif and his children.

In October 2016, the Supreme Court formed a larger five-bench to hear petitions filed by Tehreek-e-Insaaf, Jamhoori Watan Party, Jamaat-e-Islaami and others.

The Supreme Court’s larger bench delivered the much awaited verdict on April 20, 2017. Interestingly, the 549-page Panama judgment starts with the mention of Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather as follows:

“The popular 1964 novel The Godfather by Mario Puzo recounted the violent tale of a mafia family and the epigraph selected by the author was fascinating - Behind every great fortune there is a crime (Balzac)."

The judgment talks of insufficient evidence of allegations against Sharif and his family and ordered a fresh probe. The text of the verdict as published in The News (April 20) outlines dissatisfaction on the responses by Sharif and his children: “I am constrained to hold that I am not satisfied with the explanation offered by Respondent No. 1 (Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, the Prime Minister of Pakistan) and his children regarding the mode and manner in which the said properties come in their possession and what were the sources of funds utilised for acquisition of the same."

The verdict is split 3-2 among the bench. Two judges ruled against Sharif, whereas the other three were in favour of the PM. The Supreme Court has ordered a constitution of a joint investigation team (JIT) which shall investigate the matter, collect all relevant records and material to relook into the assets and properties.

The JIT would involve members of Military Intelligence, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and National Accountability Bureau (NAB) to investigate the case in the next 60 days. As reported by Daily Pakistan, Imran Khan, who started this whole movement against Sharif, congratulated the nation for a "historic ruling" as this has never happened in the history of Pakistan. He has demanded Sharif’s resignation till the JIT probe is complete.

Sharif has managed to get temporary relief, but the fact is that for the next two months he will be on his toes. The Supreme Court did not clear his name and his position weakens significantly as a leader since he has been directed to appear before investigators.

He has little support in the present situation, with the opposition parties aligning against him. His progressive and inclusive message on the festival of Holi to minorities invited strong criticism from religious entities and he was accused of "blaspheming" against Islam.

His Holi message was seen as an effort to please New Delhi. The military has not been very happy with the PM due to his "softer" approach towards New Delhi. The JIT includes the representatives of the Military Intelligence and the ISI and it would not be incorrect to say that Nawaz’s fate would depend on what the military leadership wants.

Just two years ago in August 2014, Imran Khan and cleric Qadri led a massive protest rally against Sharif demanding his resignation. Sharif apparently crossed the "red lines" and was gently reminded through a "soft military coup".  

In the current situation, if Sharif does fall in sync with the military, he is probably the best choice for the establishment as Imran Khan’s party has limited representation, with just 33 seats in the 342-member National Assembly.

Also, Islamabad would want to avoid political turmoil at this point in time when its relations with India have been severely strained in recent times and a series of bloody terrorist attacks have shaken the country internally during the current year.

Also read: Panama Papers and Nawaz Sharif's waterloo: How Pakistan SC made the PM a pawn

Writer

Shalini Chawla Shalini Chawla

The writer is a senior fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi.

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