ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Just about the only person in Pakistan with nothing to say about the recent Supreme Court ruling in the corruption case against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is the prime minister himself — and perhaps with good reason.
The court’s verdict, while allowing him to remain in office, laid out a long and damning list of questions about the Sharif family’s finances. It ordered a task force from six government agencies to investigate them, with a wider mandate than the original charges relating to the family’s ownership of several apartments in London.
In other words, this is not over by a long shot.
Since Sharif’s narrow escape from legal disqualification April 20, by a split 3-to-2 court panel, opponents and critics have demanded that he resign, saying the three-time premier had lost his moral authority to lead the Muslim-majority nation of nearly 200 million.
Leading the charge is Imran Khan, the charismatic former cricket star who brought corruption charges against Sharif last year. Khan, who heads a youthful opposition party, drew thousands of energized supporters to a Friday rally in the capital, where they danced, waved banners and chanted, “Go, Nawaz, go!”
“We are here to show the world that Pakistanis can no longer accept corrupt rulers and we need clean people like Imran Khan to run the country,” said Zahid Khan, 22, a student from Rawalpindi. “People like Nawaz Sharif who just care about their wealth and property cannot solve our problems. We will be out on the streets as long as he stays in power.”
Sharif has not spoken publicly about the court ruling, but at a rally in rural Punjab Province on Saturday he made a joking reference to Khan’s demand for his resignation, saying he and his party “should better play cricket; politics is not their ballgame. We have played cricket and we are serving the nation . . . all this protest is because they know they have no chance to win the 2018 elections.”
This week, Khan charged that he had been offered a $10 million bribe to drop his case against Sharif, whose lawyers immediately vowed to sue him for defamation.”
Other voices calling for Sharif to step down include Asif Zardari, the former Pakistani president from the Pakistan People’s Party, and some leaders of the legendary lawyers’ movement, whose peaceful protests a decade ago forced a military president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, to leave power in disgrace.
To critics, Sharif represents an equal threat to democracy — a corrupt and dynastic civilian elite. He is estimated to be worth $1.5 billion, with investments in sugar mills and other agribusinesses. Between military coups, his family has alternated in power for years with the Bhutto clan of the People’s Party.
“Mr. Sharif has no moral justification to continue in his office,” Chaudhry Zulfiqar Ali, president of the Lahore High Court Bar Association, said in an interview. “Let me tell you, Mr. Prime Minister, we will launch a big movement against you, and you will not be able to stop us.”
Sharif, 67, has made no public statements since the ruling. Analysts suggest he has been advised to lie low while aides scramble to divide the opposition and discredit Khan. On Friday, after Khan charged that he had been offered a bribe to drop his case, Sharif’s lawyers said they would file a defamation lawsuit against him.
But the real threat to Sharif, who hopes to remain in power and lead his party to victory in next year’s national elections, is not how loudly his opponents cry foul but what evidence may emerge from the Joint Investigation Team’s court-ordered probe.
The Supreme Court case was essentially a political challenge to Sharif, with competing arguments and inconclusive evidence. The probe will be a professional investigation that could lead to criminal charges, and its members include officials from the powerful military-run intelligence agency.
“Some say the prime minister has won, but his ordeal is far from over,” said Ayaz Amir, a former legislator from Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N party. If Sharif is forced to face interrogation by security officials, he said, “what would be his confidence level facing the army chief? What would be his standing with the people?”
One aide to Sharif denounced the court’s plan as a “judicial coup,” saying the justices had given the investigators vast leeway to poke into the Sharif family’s finances and had manipulated the handling of other corruption cases to flex their institutional muscle and pillory the prime minister. “This is a witch hunt,” he said.
On the other hand, there is concern that the probe could end up as a whitewash. Critics have expressed doubt that civilian oversight agencies that serve at Sharif’s pleasure will be able to conduct an impartial investigation in a system where political patronage runs far deeper than professionalism.
Meanwhile, rumors are circulating that the military, which overthrew Sharif when he was prime minister in 1999 but is now on better terms with him, may sabotage the probe. This week, partly to quell such speculation, the army commanders issued an unusual statement pledging that the military will “play its due role in a legal and transparent manner.”
As tensions swirl around the coming investigation, there are hints that it could be intentionally delayed during the upcoming Ramadan season, when Muslims fast and work slows to a crawl. Some observers suggest that Sharif, who went abroad for heart treatment during the court case, might do so again.
“The investigation will be a sword of Damocles over Sharif’s head, so he will do everything he can to blunt it,” said Rifaat Hussain, a professor of public policy and security at Pakistan’s National University of Science and Technology. “The court’s indictment was overwhelming, and Nawaz has to try and prevent the team from taking a deeper bite into the corruption case.”
The 540-page court ruling, which included two written dissents, was notable for its scathing language and its detailed history of financial transactions by Sharif’s family. The sharp criticism by all five judges has raised questions about why only two of them voted to disqualify Sharif from office, creating speculation that bribery or pressure from foreign allies and investors played a role.
Technically, the difference among the justices was not over whether Sharif and his family had broken any financial laws but whether he had lied about it. In essence, the case came down to a single phrase in Pakistan’s constitution, which says that the nation’s ruler must be honest and trustworthy. Sharif, in speeches in Parliament and court, has regularly denied any financial wrongdoing.
But the ruling, written by Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, repeatedly describes Sharif — named only as Respondent No. 1 — as having been evasive in explaining the sources of his family’s wealth. Whatever comes of the new investigation, Khosa’s words are likely to reverberate through the cacophony of Pakistani politics in the coming months.
Khosa, who voted for Sharif’s removal from office, said he had reached the “inescapable” conclusion that “Respondent No. 1 has not been honest to the nation, to the nation’s representatives in the National Assembly, and even to this Court.”
Shaiq Hussain contributed to this report.