ISLAMABAD - Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was given a reprieve Thursday when the Supreme Court ruled there was insufficient evidence to order his removal from office over corruption allegations, but it ordered further investigations.

Nawaz and his children are accused of graft in the ongoing case which has captivated the country and threatened to topple the prime minister after the Panama leaks last year linked the family to offshore businesses.

The apex court issued a split ruling calling for a joint investigation team of anti-corruption officials along with the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Military Intelligence to probe the claims and submit a report to the Supreme Court within 60 days.

A five member bench headed by Justice Asif Saeed Khan Khosa announced the judgment, which was reserved on February 23. The bench held 26 hearing, and all the five judges wrote separate notes.

“A thorough investigation is required,” Justice Khosa told the court, presenting the 540-page written judgment which opens with the epigraph that launches Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel “The Godfather”: “Behind every great fortune there is a crime”.

Two of the five judges went further than the ruling, branding Nawaz Sharif “dishonest to the nation as well as to the parliament” and saying he should be disqualified, but they were outnumbered.

The Joint Investigation Team (JIT) to probe corruption allegations against PM and his two sons – Hussain Nawaz and Hassan Nawaz – will be constituted within seven days and it will report to the court every other week on the investigations progress. In the light of the investigations, a decision will then be given after two months.

The JIT would comprise senior officers from Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), National Accountability Bureau (NAB), Security and Exchange Commission of Pakistan (SECP), State Bank of Pakistan (SBP), Inter Services Intelligence and Military Intelligence.

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Chairman Imran Khan, Ameer Jamaat-e-Islami Sirajul Haq, Pakistan Awami Muslim League Chairman Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed, and lawyers Tariq Asad and Zafarullah had filed the petitions in the case.

The PTI is seeking disqualification of PM Nawaz, Captain (r) Safdar and Finance Minister Ishaq Dar from parliament. The JI did not name the PM as a respondent in the petition but has requested the Supreme Court to direct the investigating agencies to probe the Panama Papers revelations.

The majority judgment rendered by Justice Ejaz Afzal Khan, Justice Sheikh Azmat Saeed and Justice Ijaz-ul-Ahsan requested Chief Justice of Pakistan Mian Saqib Nisar to constitute a special bench to ensure implementation of the judgment so that the investigation into the allegations may not be left in a blind alley.

The minority judgment was passed by Justice Asif Saeed Khan Khosa and Justice Gulzar Ahmed who in their dissenting notes stated that Nawaz Sharif has not been Sadiq (truthful) and Ameen (honest) in terms of Article 62(1)(f) of the Constitution and thus rendered himself disqualified from holding the membership of National Assembly and office of the prime minister.

The Election Commission “is directed to issue a notification of disqualification” of Nawaz Sharif as member of Parliament with effect from the date of announcement of the present judgment.

The minority judgement practically has no legal value though, as the majority decision prevails in case of a divisive judgement.

At the outset, Justice Asif Saeed Khosa thanked all the parties who attended the hearings and showed dignity and poise. He expected that the same shall be maintained after the announcement of the judgment. He asked the attendants not to give their reaction or response to the judgment in the courtroom, but outside the court premises. He asked everyone, particularly the media persons, to make the comments after reading the judgment.

Questions raised in judgment

The majority judgment questioned how did Gulf Steel Mill [owned by Sharif family] come into being; what led to its sale; what happened to its liabilities; where did its sale proceeds end up; how did they reach Jeddah, Qatar and the UK; whether [the two sons of PM] respondents No 7 [Hussain Nawaz] and 8 [Hassan Nawaz] in view of their tender ages had the means in the early nineties to possess and purchase the London flats.

The verdict also questioned whether sudden appearance of the letters of Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jaber Al-Thani is a myth or a reality; how bearer shares crystallised into the flats; who, in fact, is the real and beneficial owner of M/s Nielsen Enterprises Limited and Nescoll Limited, how did Hill Metal Establishment come into existence; where did the money for Flagship Investment Limited and other companies set up/taken over by respondent No 8 [Hassan Nawaz] come from, and where did the Working Capital for such companies come from and where do the huge sums running into millions gifted by respondent No 7 [Hussain] to respondent No 1 [Nawaz Sharif] drop in from, which go to the heart of the matter and need to be answered. Therefore, a thorough investigation in this behalf is required.

Raison d’être and mandate of JIT

The judgment said that in normal circumstances, investigation could be conducted by the NAB but its chairman appears to be indifferent and even unwilling to perform his part therefore court is ordering setting up a JIT comprising: A senior FIA officer, not below the rank of Additional Director General, who shall head the team; one representative/nominee from each NAB, SECP, SBP, ISI and MI. The heads of the institutions were directed to recommend the names for the JIT within seven days.

The JIT shall investigate the case and collect evidence, if any, showing that respondent No 1 (PM) or any of his dependents or benamidars owns, possesses or has acquired assets or any interest therein disproportionate to his known means of income.

The court directed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his sons - Hussain Nawaz and Hassan Nawaz - to appear and respond to the JIT as and when required.

The JIT may also examine the evidence and material, if any, already available with the FIA and NAB relating to or having any nexus with the possession or acquisition of the London flats or any other assets or pecuniary resources and their origin.

The JIT shall submit its periodical reports every two weeks before a bench of this court constituted in this behalf. The JIT shall complete the investigation and submit its final report before the said bench within a period of 60 days from the date of its constitution.

The bench thereupon may pass appropriate orders in exercise of its powers under Articles 184(3), 187(2) and 190 of the Constitution, including an order for filing a reference against Respondent No 1 and any other person having nexus with the crime if justified on the basis of the material thus brought on the record before it.

The court further held that upon receipt of the reports, periodic or final of the JIT, the matter of disqualification of respondent No 1 shall be considered. If found necessary for passing an appropriate order, the prime minister or any other person may be summoned and examined.

Political impact of verdict

Observers have called the case important for Pakistan, which ranked a lowly 116th out of 176 countries in a corruption index released by Transparency International in January.

“Whether the court convicts him or not today it spells trouble and the prime minister will be weakened,” Herald newspaper editor Badar Alam told AFP.

But columnist and political analyst Umair Javed said the ruling had benefits for both sides, noting it was “interesting” that two judges had thought to disqualify Sharif.

The inclusion of the intelligence agencies in the investigation means Sharif and his family “won’t be able to play around or drag their feet,” he said.

Khan’s party could yet fail to capitalise on the investigation, he said – meanwhile, Sharif’s party no longer faces a leadership crisis.

“That will only happen if the PM is ultimately found guilty of money laundering or tax evasion by the (investigation). The odds of this are quite low,” he told AFP.

The president of the Supreme Court Bar Association told Reuters the ruling showed that none of the judges had accepted the truthfulness of Sharif’s speech to parliament. “That is very damaging to the prime minister,” Rasheed Razvi said.

Farogh Naseem, a Supreme Court lawyer and sitting senator, said Sharif could breathe easy, for now.

“It was a close call for the prime minister,” he told Reuters. “There is no clean chit for the prime minister, but for the time being he has been saved from being disqualified.”

Naseem said with three of the institutions involved in the joint investigation under Sharif’s control, a decision against him was unlikely.