In a case that has rattled Pakistani politics, Sharif is being haunted by an investment made more than two decades ago. While for many, a final court verdict could mean justice delivered to one of the mighty elites, others see political victimisation
ISLAMABAD — Gathered in hushed silence in Courtroom No 2 of Pakistan's Supreme Court, about two hundred people lean in, straining to hear Khawaja Haris Ahmed's arguments.
A portrait of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan's founder, hangs over the three black-robed judges presiding over proceedings, as they quiz Ahmed on his client's family's assets, how those assets came to be held, and the minutiae of what amounts to "beneficial ownership."
Watching in rapt attention, are Khursheed Shah, the leader of the opposition in parliament; Siraj ul Haq, the chief of the opposition Jamaat-e-Islami party; and several other senior political leaders. The only sound, save for the sotto voce arguments of the counsel, is the frantic scribbling of dozens of reporters' pens.
This is where Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's fate will be decided.
And it is not looking good.
Panama Papers quagmire
The case against Sharif centres around the ownership of four apartments on London's posh Park Lane, located a stone's throw from Marble Arch and Hyde Park's Speakers Corner, valued at several million dollars.
In 2016, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) released 11.5 million documents leaked from Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca, showing vast amounts of wealth hidden by the world's wealthy elite in hundreds of offshore companies.
Among the documents were letters that showed that three of Sharif's children – Maryam, Hussain and Hassan – were listed as beneficiaries for three companies registered in the British Virgin Islands.
The documents showed that those companies were involved in deals worth at least $25 million. Crucially, one of the documents also showed that the companies were involved in a $13.2 million loan involving the London properties as collateral.
The so-called "London flats" had been at the centre of corruption allegations against Sharif since his previous two terms in office in the 1990s, but no direct link had previously ever been found showing that the apartments were owned by the family.
In November, the Supreme Court began hearings in a case seeking to establish whether Sharif had committed any wrongdoing in obtaining the properties, asking the family to establish a money trail that could account for their wealth. The Sharifs denied any wrongdoing, saying they could establish the source of funds to the sale of a steel mill in the United Arab Emirates. Along the way, the money was invested with Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al Thani, a Qatari royal and former prime minister of that Gulf kingdom, through whom it made its way to London, Sharif contends.
In April, the court, unsatisfied with the Sharif's arguments, ordered the formation of a high-level joint investigation team (JIT) to further probe the allegations. The JIT included members of the Pakistani military's powerful intelligence agencies. The military has ruled Pakistan for roughly half of its 69-year history, often displacing democratic governments through coups.
The JIT's report was damning. It cited documents obtained from the United Arab Emirates and the British Virgin Islands to contradict the Sharifs contention that the money for the London apartments was obtained legally. It asserted that it had obtained documentation through investigators of its own to establish that Prime Minister Sharif had, until as recently as a year into his current term, been the chairman of an undeclared offshore company in the United Arab Emirates.
Sharif's children are not exempted from the JIT's ire. At one point, through the testimony of a forensic document examiner, it claimed evidence submitted by Maryam, Nawaz's daughter and political heir apparent, was fake, based on the font that was used to draft it.
The examiner claims the font the documents were printed in, Calibri, had only been widely released to the public well after the date the documents are said to have been signed.
In summary, the JIT concluded: "Failure on the part of all respondents to produce the requisite information confirming ‘known sources of income' is prima facie tantamount to not being able to justify assets and the means of income."
"Forget the JIT"
And so the case returned to the Supreme Court, where judges are now pondering whether the JIT's evidence is grounds to refer the prime minister to a National Accountability Court for trial, or even to dismiss him immediately on the basis of Pakistan's constitutional requirements for all members of parliament to be "honest and trustworthy".
The third possibility, of the bench exonerating Sharif based on his defence that the JIT was biased and exceeded its mandate, is looking increasingly unlikely.
On Wednesday, in response to such an argument by Ahmed, Sharif's counsel, Justice Ijaz Afzal Khan remarked, pithily: "Forget the JIT."
Shortly after, as Ahmed entered another argument to contest the JIT's findings on technical grounds, Justice Azmat Saeed seemed to summarise the mood of the bench for hearing such a defence.
"We will end up in a never-ending spiral [if we question everything the JIT has said]," he said. "You should have placed your cards on the table [earlier]."
Sharif defiant under pressure
Prime Minister Sharif, for his part, remains defiant.
"Those who were rejected by the nation several times are now demanding my resignation," he told a gathering of party workers in the central city of Sialkot on Wednesday, referring to Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chief Imran Khan, who has been leading calls for Sharif to resign since 2014.
"The nation has been watching their dramas since 2014, when a [months-long] sit-in protest was orchestrated to topple the government," Sharif said.
The prime minister further reiterated that no allegations of corruption in specific projects had been raised, and that "the accused had not been told about the wrongdoing if they had committed any."
His opponents, however, see little way out for him.
The Pakistan People's Party (PPP), the largest opposition party in parliament, has taken the position that Sharif must resign, in the face of the JIT's findings, if the Supreme Court rules to accept them.
"If the case goes to the National Accountability courts, then you will see protests by all political parties to see him resign or leave office," Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the PPP's chairman, told TRT World.
Khan's PTI party has taken a similar position, repeatedly calling for Sharif to resign since the JIT report was released on July 10.
The PTI is also dismissive of the argument that the disqualification of the prime minister would lead to the weakening of democratic systems, to the advantage of the country's powerful military.
"Does democracy get strengthened when there is rule of law?" asks Shafqat Mehmood, the PTI's information secretary. "Does democracy get strengthened when powerful people are held accountable?
"If you're able to hold these powerful people to account […] your democracy gets strengthened, not the other way."
For the PPP's Bhutto, too, the equation is simple.
"Ideally I'd like to face Mr Sharif at the polls, and not in the courtroom […] but the Panama Papers were not created or found under pressure from within Pakistan," he said.
"Kind of a dead end"
"It is dismal for him right now, not just bad," said Nusrat Javed, a senior journalist and political analyst. "It's kind of a dead end. I can't really see a way out for him, in a purely legal sense. His comeback will have to be a prolonged political struggle, and that depends on the kind of public support he gets."
Javed believes that while Sharif may be able to prove there are holes in the JIT's findings on specific points, he will not be able to do so for all of the allegations, particularly since it appears that his legal team didn't file documentation to disprove the JIT's allegations during the investigation.
"The only relief that he can get [right now] is that he is not directly disqualified [by the Supreme Court]," he said. "That's the best case scenario for him."
Others, however, believe that Sharif has a better shot at survival.
"I think Nawaz Sharif is in legal and judicial trouble, but I don't think that the opposition to him is as formidable as it appears to be," says Rasul Baksh Raees, a political analyst and professor of political science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.
"There can be questions about how the information was obtained [by the JIT]," says Raees, adding that the JIT's findings can be legally challenged on their admissibility by the Sharifs. "That will open up a lot of more questions, because of the role of intelligence agencies and the assertion by the PML-N if they have gone beyond their mandate."
Ultimately, whether Sharif survives the judicial case, it is clear that his focus is purely on the political realm, with a general election due in 2018, and possibly sooner if he is disqualified and his party chooses to call a snap poll.
In that scenario, much will depend on whether his voters have been convinced by his argument that he is being unfairly victimised and subjected to "selective accountability."
"There's unease among some segments of the voter base [but] Nawaz carries a dominant core vote across [Pakistan's political heartland of] Punjab, which will stick with the party," says Umair Javed, a London-based academic who studies local politics in Punjab. "That core has only grown since 2002, and his disqualification might not shake it too much."
The battle for public opinion has raged on for days outside the Supreme Court, with political leaders from both Sharif's party and his opponents lambasting each other. Inside the courtroom, however, there remained an eerie calm, somewhat at odds with the furious political speeches outside.
So calm, in fact, that one aged, white-haired lawyer seated in the corner of Courtroom No. 2 appeared to have fallen asleep in his seat on Wednesday morning. In the rough and tumble of Pakistani politics, where most democratically elected civilian governments have been ousted before they have completed their term, it seems he's seen it all before.