Pakistan’s Opposition Leader Misses Court, Citing COVID-19

Published: 17 April 2020

Shehbaz SharifShehbaz Sharif Photo: RedGerbera (CC BY-SA 3.0)

By Eli Moskowitz, Haroon Janjua, Islamabad

Pakistan’s opposition leader failed to appear in court on Friday to explain how he and his family have amassed billions of dollars during his political career, citing the danger of coronavirus for a cancer survivor such as himself.  

Shehbaz Sharif, president of the Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party, was asked to explain how his family’s assets grew from US$130,000 to over $3.2 billion between 1998 and 2018 as part of a money laundering investigation by the the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) corruption monitor.  

Sharif was also asked to present bank account details regarding a loan he took out from Barclays Bank. Some reports have alleged he may be linked to the theft of half a billion British pounds of UK foreign aid, though Shahbaz’s son Suleman has flatly denied the allegations.  

Last year, NAB issued an order to freeze 23 properties belonging to Sharif and his two sons, which he was expected to discuss at the trial.  

"Sharif has been summoned to appear before the NAB in assets beyond known sources of income.” Nawazish Ali, an NAB spokesperson, told OCCRP. "He has to answer for how his wealth increased so substantially while holding public office,” he said.

 On Friday, Sharif reportedly asked NAB to let him delay his appearance due to the risk to his life from the coronavirus pandemic.  

"I am a 69-year-old cancer survivor due to which I have low immunity,” Dawn quoted him as saying in a letter submitted to the court. “Medical professionals have advised me to restrict movement and limit exposure due to life threatening risks associated with Covid-19." 

Shebaz Sharif was also arrested by NAB and released on bail in connection with alleged corruption in a social housing scheme in 2018, one of multiple corruption investigations into the Sharif family.  

Shehbaz’ brother, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, was removed from office in 2017 and later jailed and fined after the vast collection of offshore assets owned by him and his family was exposed in the Panama Papers investigation.  

Shebaz criticized the ruling at the time, reportedly calling it “undemocratic” and politically motivated. His brother is now in London seeking medical treatment, despite recent attempts by the Pakistani government to repatriate him to face charges within the country.  

It remains unclear whether Friday’s court appearance would have led to the opposition leader’s arrest or a formal conviction. The NAB spokesperson told OCCRP that they will prosecute within the confines of the law, but gave no further details.  

Ahsan Iqbal, Secretary General of Shebaz’s PML-N party condemned the measures taken by anti-graft authorities, saying that now was not the time for politically motivated legal proceedings.  

"We need a unity against the Covid-19 outbreak right now. Imran Khan's government should not be involved in the hate of the opposition members and making false cases against them," he told OCCRP.  

Khan, a former cricket-star who has been serving as the country’s prime minister since 2018, ran on an anti-corruption platform that has targeted the previous PML-N administration. 

"NAB is capable of doing anything and arresting opposition members and media owners without any concrete evidence. They have a hidden agenda to sideline opposition," Iqbal told OCCRP.