End of the Sharif era?

For a sitting prime minister, there could not have been a more damning indictment. The report of the joint investigation team (JIT) has charged the Sharif family on several counts — from perjury and faking documents to hiding their sources of wealth and living beyond their means. Predictably, Nawaz Sharif has refused to bow out and has vowed to take the battle to the end. Now it is left to the Supreme Court to decide his fate.

One is not quite sure how long it will take to wind up the case. But it is certainly going to be a messy endgame with the possibility of the third-term prime minister having to stand trial on criminal charges and being ousted by the court. The ensuing legal battle may drag on for long thus further deepening the political polarisation in the country. The outcome of this historical judicial action is bound to completely change the political dynamics and may well be the beginning of the end of the Sharif era.

Another shock for Sharif is that the JIT report has also alleged that his daughter Maryam Nawaz, who has long been groomed as his heir apparent, has falsified documents. This may have doomed the family’s plan for the transition of power to the second generation to failure. It was evident that such a detailed investigation into the family’s foreign assets had caught the prime minister by surprise.

Although the government had sensed the seriousness of the investigation at the end, it still appeared confident that at least the prime minister would scrape through with only some burn marks. A story published in a national daily on July 10, hours before the submission of the JIT report to the Supreme Court, and headlined to the effect that the investigation didn’t find the prime minister guilty, in fact reflected the government’s miscalculation. The government had certainly not expected such a sweeping indictment that has left the country’s most powerful political leader politically and morally damaged.

Although he appears defiant, the options for the prime minister are now limited.

Such a comprehensive probe into intricate financial deals spanning over almost three decades by a small team cobbled together from various departments, many of the members believed to have little experience of investigating white-collar crime, in just 60 days is astonishing. The gathering and verification of information from government-controlled financial institutions against a sitting prime minister of a country where the rich and powerful appear to enjoy immunity from the law is by no means an easy task.

Surely the backing of the country’s apex court may have been one of the factors. But this kind of probe could not have been possible without the clout of the members of the military intelligence agencies represented in the JIT. Understandably, their inclusion had raised many eyebrows and fuelled conspiracy theories about the military establishment being actively behind the investigation into the Panama scandal. Even the FIA developed some spine to nab the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan for alleged tampering with the records of companies owned by the Sharif family.

Considering the low level of competence and expertise of our investigation agencies it is indeed remarkable that a major part of the JIT probe involved intricate foreign financial transactions that had taken place over the years through the offshore companies owned by the Sharif family. Surely, the earlier investigations conducted by the FIA some two decades ago may have provided some important links, but the JIT probe was able to gather some substantive evidence to connect the dots.

It was made possible by the effective collaboration of some other countries including Britain and the UAE under a mutual legal cooperation agreement. That helped the investigators get access to some critical information establishing Maryam’s ownership of the offshore companies that the family had long denied.

Indeed, the record of communications between the offshore companies, foreign banks and the Sharif family helped fill the gaps. The detail of the cooperation is apparently in the 10th volume of the JIT report that has not been made public. Some foreign private investigative agencies hired by the JIT also helped to collect forensic evidence of alleged forgery of the documents. Such expertise was not available at home.

With such substantive evidence produced by the JIT, it seems difficult for the prime minister and his family to extricate themselves from the mess. They had perhaps hoped that a prolonged legal and political battle could salvage the situation. There is no indication of the prime minister stepping down voluntarily which has increased political uncertainty in the country.

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