Pakistan’s Supreme Court disqualified Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Friday from holding public office for life in a corruption inquiry linked to the Panama Papers, which had named three of his children as owners of offshore companies suspected of laundering money. The court also ordered the National Accountability Bureau, the country’s top anticorruption agency, to file corruption cases against Mr. Sharif and his family members based on the evidence collected by the court appointed Joint Investigation Team (J.I.T.).
The verdict came as no surprise. Even though Mr. Sharif was not named in the Panama leaks, and there is no evidence that he abused public office for private gain, the judges disqualified him for hiding assets, and therefore, not being “honest,” an insidious constitutional requirement for being a member of Parliament. They had already made their intentions clear by turning the inquiry into a zealous inquisition into his moral character, with the head of the five member bench disparagingly comparing the Sharif family to the mafia in “The Godfather” by Mario Puzo.
Pakistan’s superior judiciary — made up of the Supreme Court and five High Courts — has increasingly asserted its independence and power in recent years. But it has an abysmally poor record of defending democracy against authoritarian interventions. While there have been a handful of dissenting judges, the Supreme Court has legalized each one of Pakistan’s three successful military coups in 1958, 1977 and 1999 under the “doctrine of necessity.”
This judicial capitulation stems from legal precedents used to legitimize executive actions in the formative decade of Pakistan’s existence, the severe limits placed on judicial autonomy by prolonged military rule in subsequent decades and the judges’ strategic compromises for maintaining a modicum of institutional autonomy.
The empowered judges have become media-courting populists and have typically joined forces with the military by using allegations of corruption against disobedient prime ministers. In June 2012, the Supreme Court, led by Iftikhar Chaudhry, then the chief justice, convicted and disqualified Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani of the Pakistan People’s Party for contempt after he refused to comply with a court order to reopen a dormant corruption inquiry against President Asif Ali Zardari.
In Pakistan, a Probe and a Power Play JULY 14, 2017
Civil-military tensions had intensified after the killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011 and Mr. Gilani was put on the chopping block after he openly denounced the military for being “a state within a state,” and for allowing Mr. bin Laden to hide in Pakistan for six years.
The judiciary’s recent assertion of power was born out of the conflict between Gen. Pervez Musharraf and Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry in March 2007 over judicial investigations into the military’s illegal detention of terror suspects. General Musharraf fired Justice Chaudhry, which incited countrywide protests by lawyers against the military ruler.
Justice Chaudhry was reinstated but fired again, along with 60 other judges, in another contest with the general. It triggered a broader protest movement of lawyers, opposition parties, journalists and rights activists, which hastened the end of General Musharraf’s rule.
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