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Pakistan's prime minister narrowly avoids ouster in court ruling

| Thursday, April 20, 2017, 11:35 p.m.
AFP/Getty Images
A supporter of the ruling party Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) carries a poster of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as they celebrate following a Supreme Court verdict on the Panama Papers case in Islamabad on April 20, 2017. Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was given a reprieve on April 20 when the Supreme Court ordered he be investigated for corruption, but ruled there was not yet sufficient evidence to oust him from power. Sharif and his children are accused of graft in the ongoing case which has captivated Pakistan and threatened to topple the prime minister after the Panama Papers leak last year linked the family to offshore businesses. / AFP PHOTO / AAMIR QURESHIAAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
A supporter of the ruling party Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) carries a poster of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as they celebrate following a Supreme Court verdict on the Panama Papers case in Islamabad on April 20, 2017. Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was given a reprieve on April 20 when the Supreme Court ordered he be investigated for corruption, but ruled there was not yet sufficient evidence to oust him from power. Sharif and his children are accused of graft in the ongoing case which has captivated Pakistan and threatened to topple the prime minister after the Panama Papers leak last year linked the family to offshore businesses. / AFP PHOTO / AAMIR QURESHIAAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images

ISLAMABAD — After months legal wrangling and political melodrama, Pakistan's Supreme Court ruled narrowly Thursday that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif could keep his job but ordered further investigation into corruption allegations.

In a 3-2 decision, the majority on the court found there was not enough evidence of corruption or financial crimes to remove Sharif from office over claims that he and his family had hidden property and assets through offshore tax havens.

But all five magistrates — in a ruling that quoted the 19th century French novelist Honoré de Balzac — raised questions about where the source of the money used to buy four posh apartments in London that are at the heart of the case.

Sharif and his supporters greeted the news of his narrow reprieve with unabashed joy and relief.

His daughter Maryam, who faces scrutiny over her financial role in the ownership of the London properties, tweeted photos of the family and political associates hugging and smiling.

The sharply worded, 540-page ruling fell short of the bombshell Sharif's opponents had hoped for, allowing him to remain in office while his party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, competes in general elections next year.

But it left the ailing, 67-year-old prime minister politically diminished, and the Muslim League vulnerable at the polls. With the odor of alleged shoddy financial practices in the air, Sharif's party becomes a perfect target for a hodgepodge of electoral opponents — from secular activists to religious groups — who have sought to portray Sharif and the dynastic political elite as corrupt and insular.

“Nawaz Sharif isn't off the hook yet, but given how concerned the government was about Sharif getting disqualified, it could have been much worse,” said Michael Kugelman, a Pakistan expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “The government received a fairly hard slap on the wrist, but ultimately it survived.”

Kugelman and other analysts also called the ruling a victory for Pakistan's troubled democracy, with a civilian prime minister being subjected to a long legal process and a public verdict that all sides agreed to accept.

“Given the deep legacy of military rule in Pakistan, this isn't something to take lightly,” Kugelman said.

The court's skepticism was reflected in the opening lines of the decision, which referred to a phrase inspired by Balzac's writings and used as the epigraph in Mario Puzo's novel “The Godfather” — “Behind every great fortune there is a crime.”

It added a longer quote, also adapted from Balzac's original prose, that said the secret behind great but unaccounted fortunes is “a crime that was never found out, because it was properly executed.” The Sharif case, the ruling said, “revolves around that very sentence.”

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