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Pakistan Set to Open Hearings in Sharif Case

16 Jul 2017 6:23 pm
By Saeed Shah 

ISLAMABAD -- Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif faces a fight for his political survival this week, as Pakistan's Supreme Court considers disqualifying him from office or putting him on trial on corruption charges.

In hearings scheduled to begin Monday, Mr. Sharif is expected to confront questions over how his family acquired swank London apartments and an investigation ordered by the Supreme Court that accuses him and his children of living beyond their means, tax evasion and misdeclaration of assets as well as forgery and perjury in an attempted coverup of the London property.

Mr. Sharif has denied the allegations and called the report "a collection of assumptions, accusations and slander." Aides have said he would continue to fight the allegations.

The showdown could be an important turning point for Pakistan's fragile democracy, and could also shake the hard-won political stability of the nuclear-armed nation. In any case, as the Trump administration considers sending thousands more troops to Afghanistan and seeks Pakistan's help in bringing peace there, Islamabad looks set to be convulsed in a prolonged political crisis. The prospect of talks with foe India, a major plank of Mr. Sharif's agenda, also sink further, according to analysts.

Even if Mr. Sharif escapes immediate disqualification by the court, Pakistan faces the prospect of seeing a sitting prime minister on trial. Lawyers consider it unlikely that the Supreme Court would drop the case at this stage.

Also caught up in the scandal is Mr. Sharif's political heir, his daughter Maryam, and finance minister Ishaq Dar. They say they have done nothing wrong.

According to Mr. Sharif's critics, democracy will be bolstered from a prime minister being held to account by a "new Pakistan" of an independent judiciary, a freer media, and an emerging middle class demanding better governance.

"Pakistan is way ahead of other Muslim countries. This is a vibrant society," said Fawad Chaudhry, a senior member of the opposition party led by Imran Khan, which brought the court case. "The debate here has moved on from whether to have democracy, to the quality of that democracy."

However, Mr. Sharif's aides say that the judiciary, the media and opposition parties have merely been co-opted by the old Pakistan: the powerful military establishment which has repeatedly undermined and ousted civilian governments.

"The establishment has taken over this case and turned it into a witch hunt," said Daniyal Aziz, a lawmaker with Mr. Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N party. "Their aim is to rig the 2018 election and get a hung parliament."

Mr. Sharif's party currently has a majority in parliament. With a cloud over Mr. Sharif, the next election looks likely to be more closely fought with Mr. Khan's party.

"There are only two paths for Nawaz Sharif now: he can go in an orderly way, or he can go in chaos," said the opposition's Mr. Chaudhry.

Mr. Sharif has rejected calls from the opposition for his resignation. "Should I resign because a band of anti-democracy conspirators says so?" Mr. Sharif told a cabinet meeting Thursday, according to his office. "We will not allow the journey of progress and development to be derailed. Pakistan paid a heavy price for such stunts in the past. This should stop."

Mr. Sharif has clashed repeatedly with the military, in particular over his outreach to India. Washington blames Pakistan's military for supporting the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, a charge it denies.

Two of the six officials who carried out the investigation for the court came from the military. Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, the military's chief spokesman, said the officers were provided for the probe at the court's request. "The army has no direct involvement in this," he said.

Mr. Sharif warned that the advances under his government -- a pickup in economic growth, large-scale infrastructure building and a reduction in terrorism -- are in peril.

Mr. Sharif's party has also asked why others aren't facing questions of corruption, including other politicians, generals and judges.

The corruption allegations stem from the massive leak of documents from a Panamanian law firm last year that exposed the offshore assets of thousands of politicians, entrepreneurs and celebrities around the world. Among the disclosures was that some of Mr. Sharif's children, who are adults, own four apartments in London's Mayfair area.

The Supreme Court has already expressed frustration that the Sharifs haven't been able to provide a "money trail" for the acquisition of the property.

Mr. Sharif says his children, not him, were given the apartments in settlement of an old family business deal with a Qatari prince. He also says there is no proof of kickbacks or money laundering. The investigation report concluded that Mr. Sharif is "most likely" the owner of the London apartments.

Write to Saeed Shah at saeed.shah@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 16, 2017 14:23 ET (18:23 GMT)

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