The Sharif-led PMLN likely won’t be happy with the Panama Papers judgment—but neither will the opposition.
The Panama Papers scandal has gripped the Pakistani nation for 11 months. Since the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists leaked it in April 2016, it has already downed politicians in Iceland, Spain, Ukraine, among others. Seeing yet another in a long line of failed chances to oust Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf chief Imran Khan—along with a slew of opposition politicians—immediately seized on the Panama Papers leak as a means to occupy the seat of power he feels he is owed as a former cricketer and hospital fundraiser. He shouldn’t hold his breath.
On Feb. 23, a five-member bench of the Supreme Court reserved its decision in the case, saying there would be no short judgment. Legal experts had already predicted this, noting that the sprawling nature of the case—the PTI notoriously tried to bring in unrelated cases multiple times—would not allow judges to render any quick decision. But despite the PTI hoping (some might even say salivating) over a verdict ousting Sharif from office, it is highly improbable that the official judgment will yield much satisfaction. Of course, this doesn’t mean they’ll leave empty-handed.
The most likely fall guy based on the court’s statements during proceedings and coverage of the trial is National Accountability Board Chairman Major (retd.) Qamar Zaman Chaudhry. The court claims Chaudhry should have filed an appeal against a Lahore High Court verdict quashing a reference against the Sharif family in the Hudaibiya Paper Mills case. It cites a weak legal foundation for his refusal to chase the 17-year-old case alleging graft against the PMLN leadership. The PTI has, with yawning predictability, demanded Chaudhry’s resignation. Depending on the court’s final judgment, they just might get it. But senior legal experts have told Newsweek that even if the case is reopened, it is unlikely to have any impact on the Sharif family as evidence is scarce and the allegedly defaulted loans have already been repaid. That is not to say the Sharifs will emerge from this unscathed.
While there is little chance the Supreme Court will oust Nawaz Sharif from office, he will almost certainly be censured. The prime minister never outright lied about his family’s finances, but it is abundantly clear he withheld information during speeches before Parliament and to the entire nation. If the letters from Qatari royal Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani are to be believed, Sharif’s father’s investments in Qatar helped pay for the family’s property in London—which he never disclosed previously. The omission will no doubt prompt the court to demand Parliament investigate further or perhaps even demand an apology from Sharif. But he should be free from disqualification under the archaic (and all-important) Article 62 & 63 of Pakistan’s Constitution, which require office-holders to be sadiq and ameen. He might have a tough year of campaigning ahead, but no seasoned politician will find that too concerning.
Ishaq Dar, whose 2000 ‘confession’ regarding the Sharifs’ alleged money laundering was hailed as a game-changer by some media pundits and even legal experts, will also have little impact on the court’s ruling. The bench has accepted that his ‘confession’ was coerced and as ‘approver’ he cannot be disqualified from office. Even Maryam Nawaz Sharif, whose alleged status as Sharif’s dependent was seen as a smoking gun by many, is unlikely to face any legal action. She has proven in court that she is an independent woman with her own investments and assets that do not hinge on her father’s finances. Her brothers Hussain and Hassan might not fare quite so well but with no apparent political aspirations, they should have no issues weathering the storm.
Regardless of the results, the Panama Papers scandal is reaching its ultimate conclusion. Perhaps now our country, and its lawmakers, can finally focus on the far more pressing problems—a struggling economy, unending militancy, state overreach, to name a few—requiring resolution. Or we can start taking bets on the next dharna; why act when you can distract?