Key events as they unfolded
On April 3, 2016, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) made approximately 12 million secret documents public belonging to Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, containing confidential information of more than 214,488 offshore entities. Of these, eight off-shore companies had possible links with the family of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan and his brother, Chief Minister of Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif. According to the documents, three children of Mr. Sharif were reported to be either direct owners or beneficiaries of these companies.
The second largest opposition political party in Pakistan, Pakistan Tehreek e Insaaf (PTI) “The Justice Movement” headed by its Chairman, Cricketer-Turned Politician, Mr. Imran Khan, jumped at this opportunity to prove what they had been advocating for many years that the existing political elite in Pakistan was corrupt. They demanded immediate investigations into these fresh revelations. The PM, Mr. Sharif, addressed the nation on state television and attempted to defend himself by explaining how his family acquired wealth over several decades and through generations. He proposed to form a Judicial commission comprising of retired judges of the Supreme Court of Pakistan (SCP) to probe into the matter.
PTI instead demanded a Commission to be constituted under the serving Chief Justice of Pakistan. Meanwhile, all the retired Justices of the Supreme Court refused to be part of the inquiry Commission proposed by the PM, Mr. Sharif.
Amidst this confusion, Mr. Sharif took off for London for medical treatment. In the meantime, the Government representatives prepared Terms of Reference (ToRs) for setting out the scope and the working of the Inquiry Commission. A few days later Mr. Sharif returned to Pakistan and made another address to the nation and requested the Chief Justice of Pakistan to form a Judicial Commission.
In May 2016, opposition parties led by PTI rejected the Terms of Reference prepared by the Government and demanded that they should be prepared in consultation with the opposition parties. The key difference was that the opposition wanted to limit the scope of the Commission to the Panama Leaks, empower it through serving Justices of the Supreme Court of Pakistan and put a time limit to its proceedings. The Supreme Court itself also rejected the Government’s Terms of Reference on the grounds of its wide and open scope. As a result, a 12-member joint committee was formed with members from both the Government and opposition to finalise the Terms of Reference. However, the negotiations on the Terms hit a stalemate as both sides refused to reach a compromise from their respective positions. In the same month, the PM reportedly underwent heart surgery in London.
In June 2016, with no progress on the Terms of Reference in sight, the opposition parties made demands to the Election Commission of Pakistan to disqualify the Prime Minister because he had allegedly lied in the National Assembly and on State Television about his family’s assets and had therefore failed to meet the standards of integrity required under the Constitution to hold Public Office.
In July 2016, the Prime Minister returned to the country after more than a month of recovering from his reported heart surgery. There was a visible change in his stance in that he came down hard on the opposition and refused to have any further negotiations on the Terms of Reference.
A month later, when any Government Institution had yet to make any developments despite the lapse of several months, the opposition led by PTI filed a petition to disqualify the Prime Minister because, they argued, under articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution, he was no longer “truthful’ and “honest”. The petition was against Mr. Sharif, his family members and government institutions protecting Sharif’s alleged corruption. The basis for the petition was that the Prime Minister’s address in the National Assembly on May the 16th allegedly carried lies about the scale and means of his wealth.
In September 2016 the PTI party continued to put pressure through demonstrations on State Institutions to act and they called for a public march on the residence of the Prime Minister in Lahore demanding his resignation. The march took place but did not achieve the party’s desired results.
Following the march, on October 30 2016, the PTI party announced a lockdown of the capital Islamabad until the Prime Minister resigned. The PTI party stepped up the pressure and demanded an early hearing of the petition in public interest. It was then that the Supreme Court accepted the petition. As the lockdown of the Capital drew closer, Law Enforcement Agencies and PTI protestors came face to face potentially triggering civil unrest. The Chief Justice of Supreme Court of Pakistan asked the protesters and the Government to back down from their positions and submit the Terms of Reference to the Supreme Court in case they decided to constitute an inquiry commission. The lock-down was called off.
In November 2016 a hearing began with both sides submitting documents. The Supreme Court headed by the Chief Justice deliberated whether a Judicial Commission was to be constituted to investigate the matter. However, in December 2016 the Chief Justice retired, halting the proceedings and a larger bench of 5 judges was constituted to resume hearings in January. The Sharifs changed lawyers to represent them in the New Year.
The summation of the proceedings of the case was that Mr. Sharif’s family reportedly owned properties in an upscale neighbourhood of London. These properties were owned by two offshore companies of which Mr Sharif’s children were the beneficiaries. Mr. Sharif’s children were only in their teens when they owned these offshore companies thereby indicating that the source of funds to acquire these properties was from somewhere else.
The hearing resumed in January 2017. A letter was submitted by Sharif’s Defence counsel written by a Qatari Royal revealing that proceeds to the tune of $8,000,000 were handed over to Prime Minister Sharif’s son from the sale of two companies (Gulf Steel Mills in Dubai and Azizia Steel Mills in Jeddah). The original investment in these mills came from Prime Minister Sharif’s father in the form of cash several decades ago so there was no money trail. The sale proceeds from the sale of these two mills were settled in the form of shares of the two offshore companies which owned London properties.
The Supreme Court of Pakistan bench expressed unease about the biased role of the National Accountability Bureau (a State Institution to control corruption) in another related corruption case against the Prime Minister (Hudaibiya Paper Mills); the vagueness of the contents of the letter by the Qatari Royal, and the absence of any mention of investment by Qataris in several television interviews and speeches delivered by Mr. Sharif and his children in their defence.
Fresh evidence was presented by the Prosecuting Counsel which further established ownership of the London properties by Mr. Sharif’s children without any money trail available to explain acquisition. The Court dismissed the letter from the Qatari Royal as it was very vague and he refused to present himself before the court for cross questioning. The Defence and Prosecution completed their arguments.
In April 2017, the Supreme Court issued a split decision of 3-2. Three judges passed the verdict that the Prime Minister, his children and other defendants in the petition would be investigated further by a 6-member Joint Investigation Team (JIT) with members from various State Departments including Military Intelligence. The other two judges concluded that the Prime Minister should be disqualified for not being honest before the nation, the court and the parliament. Respecting the majority verdict, Mr. Sharif remained the Prime Minister while JIT carried out its investigation in the 60 days given to them by the Supreme Court to conclude their investigations.
In July 2017, the JIT concluded its investigations and submitted the report to the Supreme Court. The Joint Investigation Team report was a comprehensive 275-page document which drew extremely damaging conclusions against Mr. Sharif and his family members. The report covered several areas not least of which were forgery and perjury committed by Mr. Sharif and his family.
The Supreme Court resumed hearing of the case with limited opportunity given to both sides to present their case for the last and final time keeping in view of the contents of the JIT report. The court completed its hearing after a few days and ordered the arrest of the Chairman of Security and Exchange Commission of Pakistan (SECP) for altering records to cheat the court in a bid to save the Prime Minister.
On the 28th of July 2017 the 5-member Supreme Court bench passed a unanimous and landmark verdict disqualifying Mr. Sharif with immediate effect from holding office of the Prime Minister of Pakistan and from being a member of the National Assembly. The grounds used for disqualification were that Mr. Sharif was registered as an employee of a company based in UAE but he failed to declare that in the National Assembly nomination papers and therefore under Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution he was no longer “truthful” and “honest” to be the Prime Minister or to be a Member of the National Assembly of Pakistan (Pakistan’s equivalent of an MP). It was debated in the media by legal experts that the Supreme Court of Pakistan had to rely on a relatively insignificant matter to disqualify Mr. Sharif when there was overwhelming incriminating evidence available against him because the Supreme Court of Pakistan is not a Criminal Court and therefore could only pass a judgment on constitutional matters.
The judgement also ordered criminal cases and National Assembly references to be opened against Mr. Sharif, his family members and others involved in related corruption cases (Hudaibiya Paper Mills).
The verdict ended Sharif’s third term as Prime Minister almost one year before he was to compete the full 5-year term.
Currently, Mr. Sharif and his political party Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) have refused to accept the court verdict and dubbed this a conspiracy by the Establishment against a democratically elected Prime Minister. However, in line with the Supreme Court of Pakistan’s judgement, Mr. Sharif resigned from his post and an interim Prime Minister from the PMLN party took oath to serve until general elections next year are held or an intra-party reshuffle is done. The reality on the ground, however, is that the PMLN is the largest party and is still firmly standing behind Mr. Sharif even after his disqualification. State machinery is being extensively used to extend him the same level of protocol as he enjoyed as Prime Minister.
As a show of street power and possibly to put pressure on the Judiciary to take a lenient view in pending criminal cases against Mr. Sharif and his family members, on 9th August, Mr. Sharif embarked on a long march from Islamabad to Lahore, a 200-mile journey, making speeches in his defence along the way.
What is next for Pakistan?
From this Panama scandal and verdict, the biggest political gains are likely to be pocketed by Pakistan Tehreek e Insaaf (PTI), which is widely seen as deserving credit for bringing matters to a conclusion against their biggest rival, Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz.
These are sensitive times in Pakistan. Once again, a lack of political maturity is evident from the way State Institutions are being used for personal gains and the way they are being undermined through non-compliance, agitation and confrontation by the ruling party.
The big question before us is whether the Courts will carry out their role without fear in corruption cases against Mr. Sharif and, if so, could the instigator of the Panama Case against Mr. Sharif, Mr. Imran Khan, also be disqualified himself under Articles 62 and 63 in ongoing cases brought against him in retaliation by PMLN questioning his personal assets, his party’s foreign funding, and recent allegations made against him by one of his party’s female members? Will the confrontation and political uncertainty reach such a point that the Military will have to step in once more to restore order? This is a harsh reality Pakistanis are only too familiar with from their 70 year long history of military interventions.
The delicate future of Pakistan will likely have global consequences as, despite its chequered history, this Muslim-majority nuclear power is a country with tremendous resources, potential and strategic importance. What it desperately needs is the integrity, honour and lofty moral standards that are demanded by the title, Islamic Republic of Pakistan. May Allāh give tawfīq to the people of Pakistan and beyond.