An accountability court indicted ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif on corruption charges spiraling from the Panama Papers leak, a senior government official said on Thursday, in a case that could ultimately see the former leader jailed.
The indictment presents a fresh challenge to Sharif’s beleaguered, ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) party ahead of next year’s general elections, which the former premier is barred from contesting.
A Sharif representative entered a not guilty plea for the sacked premier, who is currently in London with his wife Kulsoom as she undergoes cancer treatment. There was no immediate confirmation that he would return to Pakistan to fight the charges. The court also indicted his daughter Maryam and her husband in the case, which relates to the family’s luxury London properties. Maryam, who attended the hearing in Islamabad, pleaded not guilty and blasted the court’s decision afterwards.
“[The] Charges are not only groundless, baseless but unfounded also frivolous and on top of that we are being denied our right to fair trial,” Maryam said in a statement to the court seen by AFP.
In late July the Supreme Court sacked Sharif following an investigation into corruption allegations against his family, making him the 15th premier in Pakistan’s 70-year history to be ousted before completing a full term.
The allegations against the prime minister stemmed from the Panama Papers leak last year, which sparked media frenzy over the luxurious lifestyles and high-end London property portfolio owned by his family.
Following the indictment, Sharif’s rival Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party led by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan celebrated the decision. “In another phenomenal victory for the people of Pakistan, disqualified Nawaz Sharif and family indicted,” read a statement tweeted by the party. “Accountability across the board imperative for development of Pakistan.”
Political analyst Hasan Askari said the Sharifs were left with few immediate options except to fight back against the charges by marshaling their political power and delaying any court sentence. “Their policy will be either to prolong the case by agitation, which is not likely, and the other is to change the law to avoid the conviction,” said Askari. He said the PMLN would “definitely lose seats” in the upcoming election, adding “this situation has definitely increased chances for Imran Khan.”
Sharif’s political fortunes would depend on his ability to convince voters that he is a victim of an unjust campaign by the powerful military to undermine him, Askari explained.
Sharif, who last appeared before the anti-corruption court on Oct. 2, has faced similar challenges in the past. In 1993 he was sacked from his first term as premier for corruption, while in 1999 he was sentenced to life in prison after his second term in office ended with a military putsch.
Following the coup he was allowed to go into exile in Saudi Arabia, returning in 2007 before becoming prime minister for a third time in 2013.
Last month his wife Kulsoom won his former parliamentary seat during a heated by-election in Lahore, in a poll seen as a key test of the ruling party’s popularity after Sharif’s sacking. After his ouster, Sharif led supporters from the capital Islamabad to his hometown Lahore in a days-long procession that brought thousands into the streets. During the rally Sharif repeatedly blasted the court’s move to oust him, saying the decision was an “insult” to Pakistanis.