Pakistan investigators want PM Nawaz Sharif tried over unexplained assets

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif listens as experts explain a process of the Haveli Bahadur Shah LNG power plant during the inauguration in Jhang, Pakistan, on July 7, 2017.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif listens as experts explain a process of the Haveli Bahadur Shah LNG power plant during the inauguration in Jhang, Pakistan, on July 7, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

ISLAMABAD (BLOOMBERG) - Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif may face trial after a high-level inquiry found he was unable to account for the disparity between his wealth and his known sources of income, plunging the country deeper into political crisis just months before elections.

The Supreme Court is due to review the findings and will convene a hearing into the allegations on July 17. If the court accepts the charges it could lead to Sharif's resignation or removal from power under the constitution.

"There exists a significant disparity between the wealth declared" and the means through which he generated income, according to a report by investigators appointed by the Supreme Court in April. The investigators submitted their report to a panel of justices, who ordered the report be made public on Monday.

Sharif will challenge the investigators' findings in the court, the minister for planning and reform, Ahsan Iqbal, said at a media conference.

The findings "will have a huge impact on Pakistani politics as it will become a major election issue," political and security analyst Zahid Hussain said in Islamabad. "The major problem will be political uncertainty. Nawaz Sharif will be damaged goods."

Opposition leader Imran Khan of Tehreek-i-Insaf party demanded Sharif to resign over the findings.  Removal of the prime minister from power could impede an economy which is growing its fastest in a decade. Sharif, who has pledged to step down if found guilty of graft by the court, has denied any wrongdoing.

Pakistan's economy grew 5.3 per cent in 2016, its highest in 10 years, after Sharif averted a balance-of-payment crisis in 2013 with help from an International Monetary Fund loan and Chinese infrastructure and energy financing. The country's foreign exchange reserves touched a peak of about US$19 billion (S$26 billion) in October though the country's benchmark stock index has plunged about 7 per cent since it was included in the MSCI's emerging markets index in June.

The top court took up graft charges against the premier in November after a report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists - known as the Panama Papers - showed Sharif's children either owned or have signing rights to authorise transactions of four offshore companies in the British Virgin Islands. Those holdings were alleged to have been used to make property purchases in London. Sharif's political rivals doubted the premier's family obtained those assets legally.

Politicians in the coup-prone country have long been accused of corruption and have often been thrown out of power on charges which may have been hard to prove in court. Ruled by powerful military for much of its 70-year history, Pakistan ranks at 116 out of 176 countries in Transparency International's 2016 corruption perception index.