As It Happens

Pakistan 'polarized' after PM ousted following Panama Papers leak

Journalist Shahzeb Jillani tells As It Happens guest host Helen Mann about the mood in Pakistan today, after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is disqualified from office.
Supporters of Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Lahore react after the Supreme Court's decision to disqualify Sharif on July 28, 2017. (Mohsin Raza/Reuters)
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Story transcript

An extraordinary ruling from Pakistan's top court has seen the country's prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, disqualified from public office.

The Supreme Court panel acted on petitions filed by Sharif's political opponents alleging that he and his family failed to disclose assets stemming from last year's Panama Papers leaks.

Sharif resigned from his position as prime minister following the ruling. 

Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif speaks to media in Islamabad, Pakistan on June 15, 2017. (Faisal Mahmood/Reuters)

Shahzeb Jillani has been reporting on the story. He's a freelance journalist and former BBC correspondent. Here's part of his conversation with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann.

What is the mood like in Pakistan tonight?

It's a polarized country. There's obviously the opposition politician, former Pakistan cricket captain Imran Khan, he has been actively campaigning over the last four years to get the prime minister dismissed. Today, he has succeeded.

There are obviously other people close to Nawaz Sharif who believe that this is a bad omen for the country. This is a country where not a single prime minister has been allowed to complete their five-year elected tenure.

And Nawaz Sharif was a third-time elected prime minister. He was just one year away from completing his tenure. And today, he has had to leave the prime minister's house rather unceremoniously.

Supporters of opposition parties share sweets to celebrate the dismissal of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Peshawar on July 28, 2017. (Muhammad Sajjad/Associated Press)

The decision by the Supreme Court was unanimous to disqualify Mr. Sharif from his position. Did the judges indicate how they came to that decision?

Yes. And because of the intense media scrutiny of this case over the last several months, I mean, I think most Pakistanis are well aware of how it happened. The hearings went on for a long time. It was discussed almost daily, 24/7 on national TV.

What we know is, they have invoked some ambiguous and controversial clauses in the constitution, which require every elected member to be honest and sagacious and [have an] ample knowledge of religion of Islam.

It's devastating for times to come because it has set a precedent for the Supreme Court to disqualify elected members over issues of morality rather than law.

Opponents of Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif react in Islamabad after the Supreme Court's decision to disqualify Sharif, July 28, 2017. (Faisal Mahmood/Reuters)

Maybe you could take us through the specific allegations. You say it's about his wealth, about family assets. What is he, what is his family, accused of?

It all started with the Panama Papers … this was last year. These are offshore companies and a number of politicians were named in those papers. Now, the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, was not named. But his daughter was. His daughter who is seen as a likely successor, Maryam Nawaz. She was linked to an offshore company which bought these very expensive flats in central London. That prompted the opposition politician, Imran Khan, to approach the court that the Sharif family has amassed wealth over the decades, it has remained unaccountable, and that's why [he] should be disqualified.

Maryam Nawaz, daughter of Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, leaves an investigavtive hearing along with her brothers Hussain Nawaz (L) and Hussan Nawaz (2nd L) in Islamabad, Pakistan July 5, 2017. (Faisal Mahmood/Reuters)

Now, things got quite dramatic in the court case when there was some debate over the use of a particular Microsoft font. Can you tell us what that is about? 

This was one of the many controversies that came out of this court case. It had to do with the Microsoft font Calibri. Some of the documents that Mr. Sharif's daughter submitted ... to deny any wrongdoing, any corruption, were dated February 6, 2006. They were in this particular font.

The judges questioned much of the evidence they were presenting. And, among them, they questioned the validity of these documents because they said this particular font wasn't commercially available until June 2007. So they were suggesting that … possibly someone had doctored these documents.

Obviously, the prime minister's family denied it. They said, "Well, the font existed." And it had been downloaded at the time. And yes, maybe it wasn't available commercially much later, but they haven't committed any wrongdoing. So, this was one of the many intricate controversies that Pakistan was discussing over the course of this trial. 

Opposition leader Imran Khan at a news conference in Islamabad after the Supreme Court's decision to disqualify Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, July 28, 2017. (Faisal Mahmood/Reuters)

You've mentioned the fact that no prime minister in Pakistan has been removed by voters — only by judges, generals, assassins — and, of course, the inability of any of them ... to complete a full five-year term. What is the effect of that — of the fact that it's not through the ballot box that prime ministers are removed?

Well, essentially, it puts the army in that position where they are the final arbiters of how power is manifested in this country. They have often used the courts to pressurize politicians. They've used media. I mean, even in this instance I can tell you that members of Pakistan's intelligence agency, the ISI, were calling newspaper organizations and television news channels to toe a particular line. The line was that the prime minister should resign. … It made me think that, if they can call news channels and editors and TV presenters with this request, what could they be doing with the Supreme Court?

There was a media trial, there was a Supreme Court trial and the Sharif family is saying they never got due process. The Supreme Court heard the case, but there was no formal trial. There was no cross examination. The prime minister wasn't given a chance to explain himself and the Supreme Court then came out with this unanimous, very powerful, and unprecedented verdict.

I think Pakistan, I feel, has entered in a new phase where much of our political class will have to look over its shoulder that they do not fall out of line with the military or they could be very easily kicked out of the parliament.

With files from Associated Press. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. To hear more from Shahzeb Jillani, listen to the audio above. 

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