By Aamir Latif
The Supreme Court decided to not disqualify Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from office in its supposed landmark judgement in the capital Islamabad on Thursday, ordering further probe into the alleged Panama Papers scandal involving the premier’s children.
The ruling party and the opposition both claimed victory, and even distributed sweets among their supporters following the split decision by the five-member bench, with each side giving its own interpretation of the 540-page long judgement.
While two judges called for the premier’s disqualification, three judges said they were in favor of forming a special committee called the Joint Investigation Team (JIT), comprising representatives of top spy agencies -- the Inter-Services Intelligence and the Military Intelligence -- to probe the Panama allegations further.
The call for further investigation comes after the apex court carried out an over four-month long hearing into the case.
Sharif and his two sons were bounded by the court to appear before the JIT, which would complete its probe into the case within 60 days. The special committee was also made bound to present its report fortnightly before the apex court.
In their notes against Sharif, the two dissenting judges -- Justice Asif Saeed Khosa and Justice Gulzar Ahmed -- said the prime minister was guilty and recommended him to be disqualified.
“The Election Commission of Pakistan is directed to issue a notification of disqualification of respondent No. 1 namely Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif from being a member of the Majlis-e-Shoora [Parliament] with effect from the date of announcement of the present judgment,” Khosa said.
Khosa -- who began his note with a quote from The Godfather novel: “Behind every great fortune there is a crime” -- said in his note the anti-corruption body must proceed against Sharif “and any other person connected with him in respect of the offence of corruption and corrupt practices…” He also directed the National Accountability Bureau to probe other assets acquired and businesses set up by Sharif’s children in Pakistan and abroad.
All five judges, however, expressed dissatisfaction with the money trail provided by Sharif’s lawyers and pointed out the failure of the country’s top anti-corruption bodies -- the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) and the Federal Investigation Authority (FIA) -- in probing the scandal.
In spite of the judges reservations over the competence of the anti-corruption bodies, the JIT would include representatives of NAB and FIA apart from the State Bank.
In his first remarks after the verdict, the prime minister said: "My conscience is satisfied and my hands are clean.
“I have not done anything wrong. I will prove my innocence before the JIT as well," according to Pakistani channel, Dunya TV.
Maryam Nawaz, who had been named in the Panama scandal, congratulated her father in a tweet: “Mubarik [Congrats] ! [Prime Minister] Wazir-e-Azam Nawaz Sharif ..... Alhamdolillah [All praise for Allah]”.
Despite being mentioned in the scandal, Maryam's name does not appear anywhere in the court order calling for further probe; however, she is mentioned along with her husband in other parts of the detailed verdict.
Sharif’s ruling Pakistan Muslim League party activists came out in droves outside the court and chanted slogans in favor of their leader’s “victory”.
According to Radio Pakistan, Defense Minister Khawaja Asif in his remarks outside the Supreme Court said: “We are thankful to Almighty Allah who granted us victory in Panama case.”
Opposition parties also appreciated the verdict, but they interpreted it as a consolidation of their stance on the Sharif family's alleged financial irregularities.
'Sharif must resign'
Imran Khan, the country’s cricket hero and head of opposition party Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf that was one of the petitioners in the case, held a press conference in Islamabad after the verdict, urging Sharif to resign.
“I, on behalf of the whole nation, and my party demand Nawaz Sharif's resignation from his office until he is proved not guilty in the investigation,” Khan said.
“I demand this because the joint interrogation team will not be able to investigate him till he is in the office,” he added.
Asif Zardari, former president and co-chairman of main opposition Pakistan Peoples Party, said: “I know Sharif will not resign. But I want to say that this [judgment] is a bluff with the nation. This all is a joke.”
Jamat-e-Islami chief Siraj-ul-Haq, who too was a petitioner against Sharif in the case, said: “Today, the people of Pakistan have won, and corruption has been defeated.”
Haq added: "Prime minister should resign because this is essential for a free-and-fair probe."
Earlier, the opposition side’s lawyer, Fawad Chaudhry, said the apex court in the verdict had expressed its complete dissatisfaction over the evidence presented by Sharif’s lawyers in the case.
“Those who are chanting slogans in favor of Nawaz Sharif, have not read the judgment. They do not know that the judgment is actually against Nawaz Sharif who now has to appear before an investigation committee as a prime minister,” Chaudhry told reporters.
Sharif, who is serving as premier for the third term, has lately come under immense pressure from the opposition and the media after the Panama Papers were leaked last year, which revealed that his two sons -- Hassan Nawaz and Hussain Nawaz -- and daughter Maryam Nawaz owned offshore companies, and properties worth millions of dollars, including controversial luxurious flats in London.
The premier maintains his innocence and has rejected all accusations of financial irregularities against him. He has repeatedly said that all transactions made by his family members were fair and in accordance with the country’s laws.
In April 2016, Sharif's eldest son, Hussain Nawaz, admitted in an interview with a local Pakistani channel that his family owned the offshore companies and the flats in London.
He had insisted the transactions were all legal and refused to make his assets public, claiming that such a move could harm his business interests.
Sharif came to power for a third term following his right-wing Pakistan Muslim League Party’s landslide victory in the 2013 elections. His previous two terms as prime minister had ended prematurely under pressure from the Pakistani military.
The Panama Papers released by Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in April last year pointed fingers at 140 politicians worldwide, among them 11 current and former national leaders, claiming they worked with the firm Mossack Fonseca to establish shadow companies for global transactions and money laundering.
Their revelation sent shockwaves across the world, resulting in the resignation of Iceland’s Premier Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson and political pressure on the then British Prime Minister, David Cameron, who later admitted to having a profitable stake in a fund owned by his father.