While people who are not Imran Khan supporters might roll their eyes and grumble about all the disruption the PTI protest in Islamabad will cause, the truth of the matter is that the questions the PTI has raised about the off-shore accounts and hidden wealth of the prime minister’s family — as revealed in the Panama Papers — remain unanswered.
These are 11.5 million leaked documents that detail financial and attorney-client information for more than 214,488 offshore entities. They came to light in the first week of April 2016 and included the names of a number of politicians and political families from all over the globe.
Among these were Nawaz Sharif’s sons and his daughter Maryam, who is widely regarded as his political heir. The documents revealed they owned offshore companies and assets which had not been shown on his family’s statements, declarations of wealth or any tax records.
The initially identified companies include three British Virgin Islands-based companies Nescoll Ltd, Nielsen Enterprises Ltd and Hangon Property Holdings Ltd, incorporated in 1993, 1994 and 2007 respectively. What also came to light was that in October 2008, the prime minister’s children raised a £7m loan from Deutsche Bank against four flats in Park Lane in London owned by offshore companies. The Panama Papers show these properties were owned by British Virgin Islands shelf companies on the books of the offshore agent Mossack Fonseca. And as shown in the documents the PM’s daughter (under her married name, Maryam Safdar) had, as early as 2006, declared herself as the sole shareholder of Nescoll in 2006 in a letter filed with Mossack Fonseca.
Initially, the PM’s response was to go on national television and address the nation. He recounted a tale of political victimisation and entrepreneurial resilience, creating a chronology which didn’t quite match up to the revelations in the Panama Papers. There was, for example, the claim that his sons were successful businessmen and they had broken no law by hiding their money away in tax havens. There was the insistence that the sons had acquired the properties after several years of business and after the sale of a Saudi-based concern, and this had nothing to do with the PM.
This didn’t quite square up with dates. The flats were associated with Nawaz Sharif much before his older son was allowed to leave Saudi Arabia and come over to London, and they were mentioned as early as 1998 by Rehman Malik (later a PPP senator and interior minister). Malik raised a number of questions about the ownership of this swanky London property, and this was much before Nawaz Sharif was deposed by General Pervez Musharraf, and before his family was sent off to palatial incarceration in Saudi Arabia.
But what proved helpful for Nawaz Sharif was his political opponents’ handling of the matter. The PM had announced that an inquiry into the matter be conducted by a retired judge but opposition politicians demanded more than that — an inquiry by a parliamentary committee. They failed to get the agreement on the Terms of Reference (TORs). ToR became an acronym that was bandied about in the news for weeks, after which everybody forgot the actual story and what was being discussed.
In a way, it all seemed to have collapsed into a heap of allegations, accusations and personal attacks, which continue to this day. Six months later, most people have forgotten what the Panama Papers revealed about the Sharifs’ hidden wealth and what Imran Khan is actually going on about. Buying time, providing distractions (flying to London for heart surgery) and hurling counter-accusations at the PTI have effectively diluted the scandal.
Imran Khan persists with his efforts for accountability, but the mood of the Pakistani media seems to have changed: the Sharifs’ offshore accounts are just not a big story now.
Amazing what you can manage by simply buying time…