Pakistan’s supreme court has removed the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, from office in a unanimous verdict over corruption allegations that will further upset the country’s unstable political landscape.
The verdict by the five-member court caps a year of political controversy over corruption allegations unleashed by the 2016 Panama Papers leak.
The governing party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), said Sharif had stepped down immediately. The party must now choose an interim prime minister to be accepted by parliament.
The ruling will throw the governing party and the country at large into turmoil ahead of elections due next year.
The 10-year disqualification of Sharif cut short the third tenure of a man who has been a leading figure in Pakistani politics for nearly three decades since his first term from 1990 to 1993.
It is the most serious political ramification yet of the Panama Papers leak, which detailed financial dealings of the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca.
The papers linked Sharif’s children to the purchase of London property through offshore companies in the British Virgin Islands in the early 1990s. At that time the children were minors, and the purchase is assumed to have been made by Sharif.
Last year, Sharif told parliament that his family wealth had been acquired legally in the decades before he entered politics.
Hassan Askari Rizvi, a political analyst, said the judgment had been expected. The big challenge for the PML-N party would be to maintain unity while finding a candidate who would be acceptable both to party ranks and a majority of parliament, he said.
At least in the short term, the ruling is a big win for the opposition leader and former cricketer Imran Khan, who has been relentlessly calling for Sharif’s removal since the beginning of the scandal.
“Imran Khan will seek an early election, to be held by the end of the year. At this stage, Imran Khan’s political fortune has improved after this ruling, and he will try to cash in on this,” said Rizvi.
Local media reported light clashes between activists affiliated with PML-N and the opposition PTI party in several locations around the country after the verdict. Leading up to the judgment, the court was surrounded by paramilitary troops.
In its ruling, the court referred all material gathered in the investigation to the court of the national accountability bureau, and recommended opening cases against Sharif, his three children, Mariam, Hassan and Hussain, his son-in-law Muhammad Safdar and his finance minister Ishaq Dar.
Ali Zafar, a barrister and former president of the supreme court bar association, said: “We are currently without a government because the constitution doesn’t envision the disqualification of the prime minister.”
The case against the Sharif family took a turn in July when forensic experts cast doubt on documents central to the defence of the prime minister’s daughter, Mariam Nawaz Sharif, who claimed she was only a trustee of the companies that bought the London flats.
The documents were dated to 2006 but appear to have used a font, Microsoft Calibri, that was available only from 2007, raising suspicions that they were forged.
“During the course of the proceedings, certain documents had been given, which were blatantly false, and on the basis of those documents the supreme court could conclude that there has been forgery. On that basis, they have the right to disqualify the prime minister,” said Zafar.
Still, some might perceive the ruling to be political, said Asma Jahangir, a prominent lawyer. “The judgment has caused cracks in the walls of supreme court because it is so unique. It will create doubts about whether it is a political judgment,” she said.
The information minister, Maryam Aurnagzeb, said: “Some verdicts are announced by the court and some are given by the people of Pakistan. In the political, democratic and historic perspective of Pakistan, it is a sad judgment. PML-N is the biggest political party of Pakistan and will remain so.”
A PML-N spokesperson said Sharif had stepped down immediately, despite “serious reservations” about the judgment. He said the principles of a fair trial had been gravely violated.
“History will make its own judgment after this verdict. And Nawaz Sharif will be successful in the court of God and people of Pakistan,” he said.
Additional reporting by Waqar Gillani