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Political turmoil in Pakistan

Political turmoil in Pakistan

The findings of a two-month corruption probe on Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his family, released by the court recently, have yet again turned Pakistan's politics upside-down. The report said that Sharif and his children could not adequately explain their wealth. While the opposition promptly called for Sharif and his entire Cabinet to resign, he refused to step down stating that the probe was a conspiracy against him. However, even if he survives, his grip on power, along with Pakistan's recent and hard-won political stability, appears badly shaken. Corruption charges and denial are not a new phenomenon for Sharif's government. His government quashed one investigation into the subject in 1997, claiming it was politically motivated.

A second collapsed in 2014, for lack of witnesses to substantiate the allegations. But the leak of a trove of documents from a Panamanian law firm last year suggested that the flats may have been owned by his children, via various offshore companies. The leak prompted Imran Khan, the leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), an opposition party, to petition the Supreme Court to dismiss Sharif as unfit for office. It failed to reach a conclusive verdict on those charges, but instead appointed a "Joint Investigation Team" (JIT), composed of civilian and military officials, to look into the claims. The Supreme Court of Pakistan is due to decide further course of action based on the JIT report. It could remove Sharif from office, on the grounds that he does not meet the Constitution's requirement that elected officials must be "honest and upright," only after giving him a few days to respond to the findings. It could also endorse the JIT's recommendation that the National Accountability Bureau, a normally timid watchdog, bring charges against Sharif and his children.

Whichever course the court takes, the JIT's final report is 'much worse' than Sharif would have expected. Crucially, it finds that strict accountability laws adopted in 1999 shift the burden of proof onto Sharif. He must show that all his assets were fairly acquired, or be presumed guilty—an arrangement that obviously boosts the chance of a conviction. During the original trial, one Supreme Court judge had compared the hunt for certifiable proof of money-laundering to "a blind man, trying to find a black cat in a dark room." Were Sharif to resign, the PML-N would still have the strength in parliament to name his replacement—perhaps his brother Shehbaz, CM of Punjab, Pakistan's most populous state, or Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, the interior minister. But Sharif seems determined to tough it out. Should the Supreme Court initiate further protracted legal proceedings, they would completely overshadow Pakistani politics until the case is resolved. Whatever else the current turmoil yields, it will certainly have the opposite effect.

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