Nawaz Sharif's remarks on the Mumbai attacks have seen him accused of being 'anti-Pakistan'. Photo: Reuters / Mian Khursheed

There was significant political uncertainty in Pakistan last year, largely due to legal trouble for the family of three-time prime minister  Nawaz Sharif.

The names of Sharif’s two sons and his daughter had appeared in the so-called Panama Papers released by the International Center for Investigative Journalists. This sparked a political confrontation that ultimately led to a battle between Sharif and the parliamentary opposition.

On April 20, the Supreme Court ordered the formation of a six-member Joint Investigation Team (JIT) to probe alleged financial irregularities by the Sharif family. The team, which had six weeks to present its findings, was formed because Pakistan’s legal system is thought not to be independent enough to probe the prime minister and his family.

Cabinet ministers question probe’s neutrality

The six weeks that followed witnessed heated exchanges of statements between government ministers and the opposition. Government cabinet ministers targeted members of the JIT and questioned their neutrality. But Sharif and his supporters failed to prevent the team from carrying out its investigation.

The JIT submitted its report on July 20, and on July 28 the Supreme Court announced its historic and politically destabilizing decision. The court disqualified Nawaz Sharif because he failed to show an asset he was to receive in the form of salary from a company owned by his son. This was the first time that a Pakistani court had disqualified a leader from Punjab, the most populous province in the country.

The court’s ruling did not stop the political drama. Sharif accepted the decision and stepped down as prime minister, but he did not let the matter rest. He started building a narrative that he had been unfairly ousted by courts. He used this strategy as his rallying cry for the remainder of the year directly challenging the neutrality of the  Supreme Court justices. He went on to address political gatherings in different parts of Pakistan aimed at bolstering his political support among the people.

Finance minister also under investigation

Moreover, the Supreme Court also ordered an inquiry into Muhammad Ishaq Dar in the same case the led to Sharif’s disqualification. Dar was not only finance minister in the Sharif cabinet but also the father-in-law of Sharif’s daughter. He was indicted by an accountability court in September. Dar then left for London, citing medical reasons, and has been there ever since. The opposition claims that Dar fled to escape prosecution in accountability courts.

During the last three months of 2017, while Dar was in London he did not relinquish control of the Finance Ministry. Consequently, financial affairs worsened and the Pakistani rupee became the worst-performing currency globally. In December Dar was given leave of absence, and Miftah Ismail, another Sharif loyalist, was named as an adviser to the prime minister for finance, revenue, and economic affairs.

Sharif and his government were not alone in facing court sanction. Imran Khan, cricket-player-turned-politician and one of the leading opposition figures, and his party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) also faced trial for financial irregularities. On December 15 Khan was acquitted by the Supreme Court, but Jahangir Tareen, secretary general and prime financier of the party, was disqualified for life.

Sharif cites double standards in Khan acquittal

When Khan was acquitted, Sharif intensified his attack on the Supreme Court. He claimed Khan was acquitted of financial irregularities similar to the ones the court found sufficient to disqualify him from office. He cited this as evidence of judicial double standards.

Pakistan’s top judge, Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar, criticized Sharif and his party, the Pakistan Muslim League (N), for questioning the impartiality of the judiciary. Nisar’s statement was widely condemned by critics who said it had political overtones.

In late December Sharif and his younger brother Shehbaz, chief minister of Punjab, went to Saudi Arabia for unknown reasons. This led to speculation that Sharif has gone to seek help from the Saudis and that he had agreed to go into exile in return for charges against him to be dropped. This speculation was refuted by Sharif when he returned to Pakistan, but political uncertainty remains.

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Adnan Aamir

Adnan Aamir is an award-winning journalist and researcher based in Pakistan. He has written extensively on Belt and Road projects in South Asia. He regularly covers politics, economy, and conflict in Pakistan. His work has been published by Financial Times, Nikkei Asian Review, Jamestown Foundation, Lowy Institute, Dawn, The News and others. He is also the founder and editor of Balochistan Voices, a digital news publication, which covers the Balochistan province of Pakistan.