The Panama Papers Have Their Day of Reckoning in Pakistan

Early Friday morning, the Supreme Court of Pakistan delivered a crushing verdict to the country’s embattled Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, rendering him “disqualified” to hold the office. The ruling potentially ends the career of the thrice-Prime Minister Sharif and throws his family’s future political aspirations into disarray.

The stunning decision was a year in the making, beginning with the April 4th, 2016 publication of the Panama Papers which exposed corruption and tax evasion among the world’s elite – including heads of state. The list included Sharif’s family, accusing them of using shell companies to purchase real estate without disclosing this information to authorities. Sharif denied any corruption and set up a judicial committee to investigate the allegations – a move thoroughly rejected by opposition parties. His most fierce critic is Imran Khan, the former cricketer turned politician and head of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) Party. Khan has obsessively been campaigning to remove Sharif from office. The Panama Papers gave him the long-sought proof of illicit dealings. After months of his lobbying and show of public support, the Supreme Court made the decision to take on the case in November 2016.

The trial lasted months. The Prime Minister’s daughter, and heir apparent, Maryam Sharif submitted details regarding the purchase of London apartments at the heart of the case. This past May, the Supreme Court formally constituted the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) to further review the charges. The JIT called several members of the Sharif clan: his daughter, sons, brother and even the Prime Minister himself. It marked the first time in Pakistan’s history a sitting Prime Minister appeared before an investigating body. The JIT presented its findings to the Supreme Court on July 10th, setting in motion the events for the five-member judicial body unanimously deciding against Sharif and removing him from government.

In a plot stranger than fiction, the evidence that caused Sharif’s argument to unravel was a font. Maryam Sharif presented falsified property deeds dated 2006 to the JIT, yet the document was typed in Calibri which was not widely added to Microsoft Word until 2007

It is difficult to predict the impact this ruling will have on the Sharif family, or the political party that has his name – Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N).  In its verdict, the Court ordered criminal investigations against the Sharif family. But the Sharifs are stalwarts of Pakistani politics, having survived the system almost four decades.

The first time he was Prime Minister in 1990, Nawaz Sharif was dismissed by then President Ghulam Ishaq Khan for corruption activities and later resigned under pressure from the military. Sharif’s second term began in 1997 and was cut short after two years by a military coup by Army Chief General Pervez Musharraf, whom he had tried to fire. Sharif fled to Saudi Arabia, was granted asylum by the royal family, and later cleared of all criminal charges. He ran again, winning in 2013 but facing a powerful opposition seizing on the Panama Papers story.

Sharif may invoke the narrative of a political martyr and decry what he calls a grand conspiracy against him and his base. This is a tried-and-true play in Pakistani politics, and may allow him to lead his party to electoral victory in next year’s elections.

What happens in the future may be unclear but one theme rings true: in its 70-year history, Pakistan’s Prime Ministers, for one reason or the other, cannot seem to finish their elected term.

Full disclosure: this article was typed in Calibri on July 28th, 2017.


Sana Ali studied International Relations and International Economics at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. She is a freelance journalist with experience covering the diplomacy, national security and identities beats for multiple international outlets. She is currently based in Washington, DC. Her Twitter is @sanaali_


Photo Courtesy of the UK Department for International Development


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