The Pakistani Supreme Court ordered for a joint investigation team to probe the allegations of money laundering against his family.
Embattled Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Thursday got a temporary breather from the Supreme Court which said there was ‘insufficient evidence’ to remove him from office but ordered setting up of a joint team to investigate the graft allegations against his family.
The high-profile graft case is about alleged money laundering by Sharif in 1990s when he twice served as the prime minister to purchase assets in London. The assets surfaced when Panama papers last year showed that they were managed through offshore companies owned by Sharif’s children.
A five-judge Supreme Court bench issued a landmark 540-page split judgment ordering setting up of a Joint Investigation Team comprising officials from different agencies including those from powerful spy agencies the Inter-Services Intelligence and the Military Intelligence.
The other agencies in the JIT include the Federal Investigation Agency, the National Accountability Bureau, and the Security and Exchange Commission of Pakistan.
The bench comprising Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, Justice Gulzar Ahmed, Justice Ejaz Afzal Khan, Justice Azmat Saeed and Justice Ijazul Ahsan also ordered 67-year-old Sharif and his two sons -- Hasan and Hussain -- to appear before the JIT.
There is ‘insufficient evidence to remove Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’, said the verdict.
“A thorough investigation is required,” Justice Khosa said, reading out from the highly anticipated ruling.
The JIT would be set up within a week. It will present its report before the bench after every two weeks and will complete its investigation in 60 days.
Justice Ejaz, Justice Azmat and Justice Ahsan wrote the majority judgment, whereas Justice Gulzar and Justice Khosa in their dissenting note branded Sharif ‘dishonest’ and wanted to remove the Prime Minister as sought by the petitioners.
Upon receipt of the JIT report, ‘issues relating to the disqualification of the PM may be taken up’, says the verdict.
The case filed by various petitioners -- Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf chief Imran Khan, Jamaat-i-Islami emir Sirajul Haq and Sheikh Rashid Ahmed -- sought disqualification of Prime Minister Sharif over his alleged misstatement in his address to the nation on April 5, 2016 and his speech before the National Assembly on May 16, 2016.
The petitioners had claimed that the prime minister lied about the investments made by his children in offshore companies, which led to the acquisition of four apartments in London’s upscale Park Lane neighbourhood.
The case was launched on November 3 and the court held 35 hearings before concluding the proceedings on February 23.
Prime Minister Sharif, his daughter Maryam Nawaz, sons -- Hasan Nawaz and Hussain Nawaz, retired Capt Muhammad Safdar (the PM’s son-in-law) and Finance Minister Ishaq Dar were among the respondents in the case.
The court also ordered that it was important to probe how money was transferred to Qatar.
The bench was not satisfied with regards to the money trail for the Sharif family’s Gulf steel mill and ordered to investigate their business dealings in Qatar.
Sharif had argued that the London property was bought from the money earned after selling share Gulf steel mill in Qatar and produced a letter by a Qatari prince in his support.
The London properties owned by Sharif's children are at the centre of controversy.
In the verdict, the bench said that the NAB chairman has failed to cooperate with the investigation, and the director general FIA has failed to curb white collar crimes, necessitating the formulation of the JIT.
Sharif and his PML-N party breathed a collective sigh of relief as the fear of an ‘extreme verdict’ -- the prime minister’s ouster -- dissolved and gave way to celebrations.
His supporters hailed the court's decision as a victory of justice.
“We have been vindicated as prime minister had last year asked to set up a probe commission to investigate Panama leaks scandal,” said Khawaja Asif, defence minister and close ally of Sharif.
TV footage showed Sharif embracing his younger brother Shahbaz Sharif who is chief minister of Punjab province.
Maryam tweeted a photo of Sharif, his family and PML-N leaders celebrating the verdict with smiles and embraces.
Sharif is the only Pakistani politician who has the distinction of being the prime minister of the coup-prone country for a record three times.
He had served as the prime minister from 1990 to 1993 and from 1997 to 1999. Both of Sharif’s first two stints had ended in the third year of his tenure.
Opposition leader and lawyers termed the court’s verdict as an indictment of Sharif and demanded his resignation.
“I demand that Sharif should resign immediately as he has lost moral authority to rule the country,” Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf chief Khan said at a press conference Islamabad.
Khan termed the verdict as indictment of Sharif as the bench did not absolve him of the allegations.
He said if Sharif is not ready to step down permanently, he should step aside for 60 days when JIT would probe the money laundering allegations, as ordered by the court.
Khan said the court has rejected the defence of Sharif and his family that their properties in London were bought with clean money.
Former president and Pakistan People’s Party leader Asif Ali Zardari condemned the court’s decision to not disqualify Sharif as premier and asked him to immediately step down.
“I condemn the judgement and ask Sharif to resign,” he said at a press conference. He took a swipe at the court and said that ‘we never expected any justice from the court’.
Zardari, however, hailed the two senior judges who asked Sharif to resign.
He expressed doubts that junior officers working under Sharif cannot deliver justice as part of Joint Investigation Team when the highest court failed to deliver justice.
“With the decision of today, not only democracy but also justice itself has been damaged. I also say that people have been made fools through the judgement,” said Zardari.
Zardari’s close aide Aitzaz Ahsan said the JIT ordered by the court actually was meant to give escape to Sharif.
Earlier, the area around the Supreme Court, located in Islamabad’s Red Zone, was put on ‘red alert’, with around 1,500 police, Rangers and Frontier Constabulary personnel deployed for security arrangements.
Photograph: Caren Firouz/Reuters