Pakistan's Sharif Lost 'Moral Authority' to Rule, Opponent Says

Supporters of Pakistani opposition politician Imran Khan take part in a rally in Islamabad, Pakistan on Sunday. Faisal Mahmood/Reuters

Pakistan opposition politician Imran Khan on Sunday threatened fresh protests against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, saying the leader had lost "moral authority" to rule after the Panama Papers leak had linked his family to offshore wealth.

Khan has seized on the Panama Papers scandal as a fresh opportunity to try to unseat Sharif. The former cricketing hero staged protests in Islamabad for months in 2014 over alleged electoral fraud but failed to topple the prime minister.

Addressing a crowd of tens of thousands in the capital Islamabad on Sunday, Khan said an inquiry into the Panama Papers proposed by Sharif did not go far enough and demanded international forensic auditors be involved.

"We want a commission that has an offshore branch, that has international investigators," he told flag-waving supporters at an evening rally. Many had chanted "Go Nawaz, go."

Leaked documents from the Mossack Fonseca law firm in Panama this month showed Sharif's sons Hassan and Hussain, and daughter Maryam, owned at least three offshore holding companies registered in the British Virgin Islands.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which studied the papers, said those companies had engaged in at least $25 million in property and acquisition deals.

Sharif has said his children have done nothing illegal, but opponents accuse the family of using the tax haven to launder stolen money and dodge taxes.

Sharif on Friday bowed to opposition demands for a Supreme Court-appointed inquiry commission and said he would resign if it found wrongdoing.

Khan 'really desperate'

But Khan said Sharif had "lost the moral authority to rule" over the nation of about 190 million people. He called for more rallies in Sindh province and in Lahore, the prime minister's political heartland, and threatened to march on Sharif's residence if his demands regarding the inquiry were not met.

The ruling party has dismissed Khan's latest protests as opportunism and says the 2014 demonstrations against electoral rigging had damaged Khan's credibility after election tribunals ruled that the 2013 poll was largely free and fair.

"Imran is just really desperate for any kind of shortcut to becoming prime minister and with these leaks he thinks he's hit the jackpot," Muhammad Zubair, minister for privatisation and a member of the prime minister's media team, told Reuters.

Sharif was left weakened by Khan's previous protests, which the army helped Sharif ride out in exchange for control of security and foreign policy, areas Pakistan's generals have long considered to be their domain.

To have any realistic chance of displacing Sharif, Khan will need the backing of the powerful military. But few believe the army would back him.