ISLAMABAD: Opposition leaders have called for his resignation, analysts have predicted his departure and as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif made a short trip to London for a medical check-up, rumours were swirling thick and fast in the aftermath of the Panama Papers leak.
But do these doomsday scenarios bear any semblance of reality, or will Panamagate turn out to be another storm in a teacup?
Few legal and political experts share this doom and gloom prediction.
Most feel that there will be no immediate danger to the PML-N government, though the political temperature will increase in the days to come following PTI’s decision to launch a protest campaign after deciding that the government-announced judicial commission is insufficient.
However, there seems to be agreement on the fact that the ownership of offshore companies will have long-term implications for the prime minister’s family.
What worries the prime minister most, according to one of his aides, was the possible damage to the political career of his daughter, Maryam Nawaz Sharif — the only child among his four who is now seen as the heir apparent to the prime minister. He seems to share this idea.
His two sons — Hassan and Hussain — who, too, were embroiled in the Panama Papers leak, have so far shown little interest in politics. The second daughter, who is married to Senator Ishaq Dar’s son, is also a stranger to public life.
The aide added, “Since Hassan and Hussain have lived most of their adult life in Saudi Arabia and the UK, and are more interested in business than politics, Maryam is the only one among the PM”s children who has shown the potential for and has been taking an active interest in politics.”
According to the Panama leaks and the admission of the two brothers, Maryam is a direct beneficiary of their offshore companies.
This can prove to be a legal hurdle.
As the aide pointed out, “If she was to assume a key political role in the future, the accusations thrown up by the Panama Papers will have to be settled one way or other, because at the time of a general election, opposition parties will raise it both politically and in the courts to challenge her candidacy.”
The aide has a point.
The PML-N’s main defence so far has been the fact that both Hassan and Hussain have lived abroad since October 1999, so they are responsible for their own business concerns. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said at a recent press conference: “Let the two sons of the prime minister defend their position; Mr Sharif has nothing to do with their business interests.”
But this is not a defence that Maryam Nawaz can adopt. How will she defend or justify her ownership of properties in London and an offshore company? These are questions, which, circles close to the prime minister say, are worrying him.
Legal experts tend to agree.
Retired Justice Tariq Mehmood, an expert in the constitutional matters who also had a stint at the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), told Dawn, “Certainly, it’s a very serious issue, particularly for Maryam, who is reportedly being groomed as the next generation leader of the party.”
Saying that the government seemed to be under serious pressure, Justice Mehmood added that before Maryam, her husband Captain Mohammad Safdar, who is a serving MNA, can be accused of not declaring his wife’s alleged assets. Under Section 42(A) of the Representation of People Act 1976 and the Senate Election Act 25 (A), it is mandatory for members of parliamentarians to declare their assets, and those of their spouses and dependants.
To drive the point home, Justice Tariq referred to the recent de-seating of a PML-N MNA Iftikhar Cheema, who was punished for not sharing details of a joint account with his wife.
This seems more plausible when the assertions of those who think the case against the entire family is an open and shut case are closely studied.
Take for instance, the PPP opposition leader in the Senate, Aitzaz Ahsan.
According to him, it’s a no-brainer: the children of the prime minister have accepted ownership of the companies set up in the British Virgin Islands, a well-known tax haven.
“Internationally, the basic purpose of setting up offshore companies is to hide sources of income, their beneficiaries and avoid tax, which was clearly the intent of the prime minister and his two sons,” he said during a recent joint sitting of the parliament.
He was of the opinion that there is no need for a judicial commission, and following in the footsteps of his British counterpart, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif only had to present his tax details, how much wealth he owned or inherited from his late father, which he transferred to his sons.
It is noteworthy that the Panama leaks also implicated the father of British PM David Cameron due to which the British leader continues to face criticism for financially benefiting from his late father’s offshore company. He also had to make his tax details public.
There is no doubt that offshore companies do raise eyebrows around the world because it leads to questions about tax avoidance or even the sources through which the money was accumulated. However, questions do not necessarily mean proof of an illegal act or guilt.
When asked what made offshore companies a ‘bad thing’ when their running was an accepted practice in the international corporate world, Ahmer Bilal Soofi, an international law expert, said, “Often they (offshore companies) are used to launder the proceeds of crime.”
Once again, Soofi’s answer shows that such accounts tend to point to what at best can be described as ‘circumstantial evidence’ of some wrongdoing, but they are not in themselves hard evidence of any illegality.
Investigative agencies will have to prove that the money used to set up these companies was earned illegally to implicate PM Sharif. And this is hardly something Pakistani agencies are adept at.
This is why the government will most probably agree to a commission to look into the issue. Well-known Supreme Court lawyer Asma Jahangir said there was also the issue of jurisdiction, which would make the proposed investigations a difficult task for a local commission.
Planning Commission minister Ahsan Iqbal told Dawn, “I don’t see anything new in the Panama leaks, except PTI chairman Imran Khan’s excitement, who wants to use them against the government.”
For PM Sharif, in other words, this is merely a political issue that will tarnish his image as a clean politician and strengthen the perception that the Sharif family uses its political clout to build its business fortunes. And this is where Imran Khan can and will use the issue to hit out at the PML-N.
As a Supreme Court lawyer points out, “The issue is not of incriminating evidence against the Sharifs, but, how Imran Khan is going to use it in his favour.”
Published in Dawn, April 21st, 2016