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Politics

Pakistan's top court rejects bid to oust prime minster

Nawaz Sharif narrowly avoids disqualification but faces further investigation

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Supporters of Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif celebrate following the Supreme Court's decision in Lahore.   © Reuters

ISLAMABAD -- Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif narrowly avoided a legal bid to force him out of office after the country's Supreme Court ruled Thursday against his disqualification on charges related to his family's offshore wealth.

The 3-2 ruling sparked a rally in the country's financial markets, with the Karachi Stock Exchange 100 index rising 1,254.37 points, or 2.64%, to close at 48,857.85 points. News of the pro-business prime minister's survival had earlier fueled a 1,909-point rise in the index as most listed stocks were briefly suspended after intra-day gains of 5%, before profit taking in late trading.

Ruling on a petition filed by opposition politicians, the judges disagreed over whether contradictions in Sharif's statements to parliament and the court about the extent of his family's overseas assets were grounds for disqualification.

The issue came to light after the leaking last year of the "Panama Papers," when documents from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca showed Sharif's children owned companies based in tax havens and had used them to buy property in London.

The judges also differed over the authenticity and admissibility of evidence presented by petitioning opposition politicians to substantiate their allegations of corruption and money laundering against the prime minister.

The petitioners included Imran Khan, the leader of the Pakistan Movement for Justice, one of two major opposition parties in the country's parliament.

The ruling sparked celebrations outside the court by deputies of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party, which enjoys a comfortable 134-seat majority in the directly elected lower chamber of parliament.

They said the ruling cleared the way for Sharif to win a fourth term in office in a general election scheduled for early 2018. "The court's decision proves this was a political case, not a legal case," State Minister for Information Maryam Aurangzeb told reporters.

New probe ordered

However, Sharif faces further scrutiny by the Supreme Court.

The five presiding judges were unconvinced by documents presented to the court by lawyers representing the Sharif family to establish the legality of funds transferred to offshore Panamanian companies owned by the prime minister's adult children.

They ordered the formation of a multi-agency investigation to probe allegations of corruption and money laundering against the Pakistani prime minister and his sons Hussain Nawaz Sharif and Hassan Nawaz Sharif, who run the family's businesses in Pakistan and overseas. All three have been ordered to appear before the investigation team for questioning.

The investigating team will submit its findings to the Supreme Court within 60 days, after which the judges will issue a final decision on Sharif's eligibility to hold public office.

Opposition leader Khan claimed a moral victory, claiming the dissenting notes of two judges had substantiated his allegations of corruption against the prime minister.

He demanded that Sharif stand down until the fresh investigation against him and his sons was concluded. "If you're cleared, you can return," Khan said.

Supreme Court litigator Salahuddin Ahmed said the court's ruling would initially benefit Sharif's administration, but cautioned that the tables could be turned if the judicial process dragged out after the investigation.

"The court has retained a supervisory role, so the sword of Damocles will continue to hang over Nawaz Sharif," he said in an appearance on Dawn News, a Pakistani cable news TV channel.

Political analyst Hamid Mir said the Pakistan prime minister was far from out of the woods. "The five judges agreed that this issue is not over. Panama Papers case 1 is over, but Panama Papers case 2 has just begun," he said.

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