How the Panama Papers Sunk Another World Leader

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Pakistan's Nawaz Sharif Resigns as Prime Minister

For the third time in a decades-long political career, Nawaz Sharif has been ousted as Pakistan prime minister. His latest undoing: corruption charges leveled against him and his children arising from the mass leak of financial details last year known as the Panama Papers. Sharif, who denies wrongdoing, now faces a trial with his children in the culmination of the first investigation by a civilian court into a sitting Pakistani leader. It’s the latest chapter of strife in Pakistan’s turbulent political history and sets the scene for further turmoil ahead of elections next year.

1. What allegations have been leveled at the first family?

A report last year by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on leaked documents from Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca, showed Sharif’s three children either owned or had signing rights to authorize transactions by offshore companies in the British Virgin Islands. Those holdings were allegedly used to make high-end property purchases in London. The family’s political opponents, led by former cricket star Imran Khan, have said the properties were obtained through corrupt proceeds. Khan took the case to the nation’s top court and in April, two of the five members of the Supreme Court recommended Nawaz Sharif be disqualified, while the other three mandated a further probe into the family. 

2. What did the probe recommend?

The investigative team released its report to the court on July 10. It recommended the Supreme Court take up a case against the family over the significant gap between the “declared sources of income and the wealth accumulated,” as well as over the presentation of documents to the inquiry that appear to be forged -- dubbed ‘fontgate’. The prime minister’s daughter, Maryam Sharif, provided a letter dated 2006 that she said showed she transferred property deeds to her brother. It was written in Calibri font, which the investigation team noted wasn’t released commercially until 2007.

The daughter of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Maryam Nawaz, arrives to appear before an anti-corruption commission at the Federal Judicial Academy in Islamabad on July 5, 2017.
Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his children are accused of graft in an ongoing case which has captivated Pakistan and threatened to topple the prime minister after the Panama Papers leak last year linked the family to offshore businesses. The Supreme Court issued a split ruling calling for a joint investigation team of anti-corruption officials along with the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Military Intelligence to probe the claims and issue a report within 60 days. / AFP PHOTO / AAMIR QURESHI        (Photo credit should read AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images)

Maryam Nawaz.

Photographer: Aamir Qureshi/AFP via Getty Images

3. What did the Supreme Court say second time round?

The five-member bench unanimously recommended disqualifying the premier. "Having furnished a false declaration under solvent information, Mian Nawaz Sharif is not honest,” Justice Ejaz Afzal Khan read in court. “Therefore, we disqualify him to be a member of the national assembly,” and “with immediate effect thereof cease to be prime minister of Pakistan.” Regarding a trial, the Supreme Court ordered a decision within six months.

4. So another scalp courtesy of the Panama Papers?

Indeed. Sharif is the second world leader to be felled by the leaks, following the resignation of Iceland’s prime minister last year. The Panama Papers also led to the exit of Spain’s industry minister, two pension fund CEOs in Iceland and senior European bankers.

5. What have the Sharifs said about the allegations?

When the Panama Papers were leaked, the prime minister said he would step down if the charges were proved. Since then his family has dug in. Daughter Maryam, who is seen as a potential succession leader of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party, has disputed the allegations and said her father wouldn’t resign. “I have no burden on my conscience,” the prime minister said at a cabinet meeting on July 13. “Our family has gained nothing from the politics, rather it has lost a lot.” After the Supreme Court ruling, Sharif’s office said he had resigned, justice wasn’t done and all legal options will be considered.

6. Who takes over as prime minister?

Either a lawmaker from Sharif’s party will take the helm, or the PML-N will call early elections and dissolve Parliament. So far it’s not clear who would step up to take Sharif’s position in the party, and PML-N officials haven’t publicly indicated a clear successor. Speculation rests on candidates such as the prime minister’s brother and chief minister of Punjab province, Shehbaz Sharif, or Shehbaz’s son Hamza. Other potential names include Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan and Planning and Reforms Minister Ahsan Iqbal.

7. What about Pakistan’s powerful military?

Two of the six members of the court-mandated investigative team came from military bodies, including the feared Inter-Services Intelligence agency. That’s raised eyebrows over the involvement of the armed forces in a civilian legal matter. There is great mistrust between the Sharifs and the military establishment; Nawaz Sharif was ousted in a previous stint in power by a coup led by General Pervez Musharraf in 1999. The armed forces have ruled Pakistan for much of its 70 years and have entrenched positions in the economy through land ownership and share holdings in large corporations, along with an oversized sway on foreign policy. Of the case, Pakistan’s military spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor told reporters that the armed forces have “no direct link with this issue” and the two military members were appointed by the Supreme Court. “The Supreme Court will take the decision and the army has no involvement in that.”

8. Will the turmoil hit the economy?

It comes as the economy faces headwinds after years of near 5 percent growth on the back of Chinese infrastructure funding. The country’s key stock index had its biggest slump in more than eight years on July 11, a day after the investigation recommended legal proceedings against Sharif. Though the Supreme Court ruling is likely to prompt more selling -- on top of a widening current account deficit and a recent currency wobble -- there’s reason to believe the chaos may not hinder economic growth in the longer term. China is financing more than $50 billion in infrastructure projects across the country, and Pakistan’s military is heavily invested in the country’s economic stability.

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