Pakistan’s apex court ousts country’s remier over corruption claims

File photo taken on Sept. 30, 2015 shows Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif addressing the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly, at the United Nations headquarters in New York, the United States. Pakistan's Supreme Court on July 28, 2017 disqualified Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif over corruption charges. (Photp : Xinhua/NEWSis)

File photo taken on Sept. 30, 2015 shows Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif addressing the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly, at the United Nations headquarters in New York, the United States. Pakistan’s Supreme Court on July 28, 2017 disqualified Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif over corruption charges. (Photp : Xinhua/NEWSis)

Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Friday disqualified Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for life from holding any public office over long-running corruption allegations, a decision that ousts him from the premiership for the third time.

Sharif’s ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party, one of the several factions of Muslim League linked to premier Nawaz’s name, which has a majority in parliament, is expected to name a new prime minister to hold office until elections due next year.

The court also dismissed Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, one of Sharif’s closest allies and a relative, who had been claiming steering the country’s economy to its fastest pace of growth in a decade.

The apex court’s verdict plunged the country into fresh political turmoil roughly one year before scheduled general elections which would have seen Sharif become the first Pakistani prime minister to complete a full five-year term.

As the verdict was announced in Islamabad opposition supporters rushed into the street chanting slogans and handing out sweets in celebration.

However, in Lahore, capital of Sharif’s power base Punjab province, sporadic protests broke out, with his supporters burning tires at the roads and blocking streets. Similar reports were received from some other towns of Punjab province.

The allegations stem from the Panama Papers leak last year, and the lavish lifestyles and luxury London property portfolio of the Sharif dynasty.

“He is disqualified as a member of the parliament so he has ceased to be holding the office of Prime Minister,” Justice Ejaz Afzal Khan told the packed courtroom in Islamabad, country’s capital.

The court also asked the National Accountability Bureau, an anti-corruption body, to launch a further probe into the allegations against Sharif and his family, which would look into criminal charges brought against the powerful Sharif dynasty known for their steel industry.

Nawaz Sharif, affected by the nationalization programme of the country’s first elected Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was chosen by Dictator Gen. Zia to join politics after overthrowing Bhutto’s civilian government in 1977. Sharif was made finance minister of Punjab province. In 1988, his party swept polls in Punjab and he became the Chief Minister.

By Friday afternoon, Nawaz Sharif relinquished the office and left the Prime Minister’s House. His entire cabinet also stands dissolved after the court ruling. His party however claimed Nawaz Sharif has stepped down from the premiership to honour the court verdict.

The opposition parties including Pakistan Peoples’ Party, headed by Bilawal Bhutto, the son of slain leader Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Justice Movement) led by former cricket captain Imran Khan and others had been insisting Nawaz Sharif to resign before the court verdict but he refused denying the allegations.

Sharif, 67, had always denied any wrongdoing and dismissed the investigation as biased and inaccurate. He had termed the accountability as ‘revenge’ by the opponents.

The Sharif family and even their political allies have consistently and noisily rejected the corruption claims against them.

“Not a single penny of corruption has been proved in this decision against Nawaz Sharif and the people of Pakistan also know it,” information minister Maryam Aurangzeb told reporters after the decision.

The party currently has no clear successor in place. Sharif’s daughter, Maryam, is his presumptive political heir but she does not hold public office, while his brother, Shahbaz Sharif, the current chief minister of Punjab province, holds only a provincial seat.

The push against Sharif has been spearheaded by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf party.

The controversy erupted last year with the publication of 11.5 million secret documents from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca documenting the offshore dealings of many of the world’s rich and powerful.

Three of Sharif’s four children – Maryam, daughter, and his sons, Hasan and Hussein–were implicated in the papers.

At the heart of the case is the legitimacy of the funds used by the Sharif family to purchase several high-end London properties via offshore companies.

The PML-N insists the wealth was acquired legally, through Sharif family businesses in Pakistan and the Gulf.

The Supreme Court had in April declared there was “insufficient evidence” to oust Sharif over the allegations, and ordered an investigation.

That enquiry by a team of civilian and military investigators found there was a “significant disparity” between the Sharif family’s income and lifestyle in its report, which was submitted to the Supreme Court earlier this month.

The findings sparked an uproar when it was revealed they included the claim that documents regarding Sharif’s daughter and her link to some of the family’s London properties were “falsified”–dated 2006, but typed in Microsoft’s Calibri font, which was not released for commercial use until 2007.

Bribery and other forms of graft are endemic in Pakistan, with the country coming in 116th place out of 176 countries in corruption levels (ranked by Transparency International in 2017).

Sharif was ousted by graft allegations once before: when he was sacked by the country’s then-president during his first term as prime minister in 1993. He was removed from office in his second term by a military coup in 1999.

Other premiers have also seen their tenures cut short by the powerful military or interference from the Supreme Court, while some have been ousted by their own party, forced to resign–or assassinated.

Sharif’s ousting comes as the civilian government appears to have reached an uneasy detente with the military which has ruled Pakistan for half of its existence.

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