Panama Papers: A coup against the Sharifs and Bhuttos

Published: April 5, 2016


Since 2010 the world has started to become an enormously dangerous place for secret keepers. Come 2016, the Panama Papers heralded the beginning of mega leaks. This year’s victim is not a financial institution but a law firm which did everything illegal for the rich and the powerful.

Imran demands immediate probe in Sharif family’s alleged offshore wealth

It all began with a phone call to German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung around the end of 2014. The source was cautious; he called the investigative newspaper only once and then preferred using encrypted chat. There were no meetings at all. Whistleblowing came of age in about four years after Wikileaks. There was no Bradley Edward Manning to be arrested here.

The German daily fact checked some documents. The information overload led the newspaper to reach out to US-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists who employed dozens of reporters from around the world for fact checking. Nothing is said to have been disclosed by any of the team members. The source asked for no financial rewards for Panama Papers. The daily in a video about how it got the treasure trove of secret files quotes the source as saying, “I want to make these crimes public. They must be stopped. It’s rotten business they are doing.”

PM Nawaz’s family hit back after Panama Papers leak

Welcome to the age of mega leaks where dirty data comes in terabytes, but namelessly thanks to cryptographic software, such as Tor and Onionshare. The emails, PDF files, photo files and excerpts of an internal Mossack Fonseca database exposed dictators, politicians, Japanese mafia, Sicilian mafia, Russia mafia, weapons dealers, drug dealers, pedophiles, terrorists and sanction-busting clerics like Ahmadinejad. Amongst the 140 political elite are families of prime ministers of Iceland, UK, Pakistan, presidents of Argentina, Russia, China, Ukraine, Syria besides former Iraqi premier and son of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

The leaked database covers a period over almost 40 years, from 1977 till December 2015. The law firm perfected the art of creating shell companies – an entity without active business that exists as a vehicle for another company’s operations – for its rich global clientele to help evade tax and turn black money into white. While companies that shield owners’ identities can be used legally, they can also be tools for hiding assets, laundering funds or evading taxes.

For the years to come, the Panama Leaks will be good news for lawyers and tax consultants and investigators. Their business is going to flourish by leaps and bounds.

Is it only the beginning of the trail? The answer is unknown. However, a good investigator or a probing journalist won’t spill all facts in their first expose. They usually wait for outright rebuttals to expose more facts, mostly more damaging than the previous ones. Thus, there is much more to worry about for the Sharifs and the Bhuttos of Pakistan, for that matter.

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The Panama Papers reveal that Former Pakistan prime minister, late Benazir Bhutto, her aide Abdul Rehman Malik and nephew Hassan Ali Jaffery Bhutto set up a company, Petroline International Inc, in the British Virgin Islands in 2001.

Pakistan’s information ministry won’t be able to execute effective damage control with its discretionary or ultra-secret funds in the face of an imminent whirlpool of further disclosures and interpretations of the Panama Papers. There is no forecast possible for what follows on the horizon. Even if the Pakistani political elite such as the Sharifs and the Bhuttos manage to escape legal and political fallout at home, they will remain in global headlines alongside other corrupt politicians.

The reaction of Khulubuse Zuma, nephew of South African leader who followed Nelson Mandela, is almost the same as the Sharif families: “There is nothing new as it has been on the public record for years.” Zuma’s spokesperson is quoted as saying the Panama Papers might be saying something new about others‚ but not about him. He too termed the level of ‘hype’ in media as ‘unusual’.

Mossack Fonseca, the so-called law firm itself said the leaks were ‘unlawful’.

Forbes is reviewing its list of richest people. It is emerging that 29 billionaires from Forbes list of top 500 Richest including movie star Jackie Chan and football icon Lionel Messi are also tainted with tax evasion through the Panama-based company.

While France, Germany and Italy are starting investigations to establish criminal cases against any of the institutions and citizens involved, the prime time TV shows dwelled deep into money laundering and its likely use by criminal mafias and terrorists. According to one estimate, two-thirds of tax haven money ($12.29 trillion) is in the European Union.

Panama Papers: Nawaz family used offshore firms to own UK properties

In Pakistan, the Federal Investigations Agency is mandated to probe money laundering. The other institution for all-round high profile corruption investigation is the National Accountability Bureau. None is autonomous enough to conduct an inquiry without waiting for the chief executive’s orders. If the prime minister does not, the chief justice of Pakistan can take the matters in his own hands. He has been using the right of suo moto action quite sparingly so far.

Naveed Ahmad is a Pakistani investigative journalist and academic with extensive reporting experience in the Middle East and North Africa. He is based in Doha and Istanbul. He tweets @naveed360

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Reader Comments (18)

  • Parvez
    Apr 5, 2016 - 3:14PM

    Which government organization will bell the cat ?….NAB ? the judiciary ? or the ECP ? in my opinion none will………because they all have skeletons in their cupboards. Recommend

  • Prada
    Apr 5, 2016 - 3:34PM

    I am waiting for big name in the Indian political landscape to also be named. It takes some time for 11 million documents to be perused.Recommend

  • M.S.
    Apr 5, 2016 - 3:52PM

    So far Bhuttos are not mentioned anywhere in reports. Bracketing them with Sharifs is an intellectual dishonesty. Recommend

  • M. Ahmed
    Apr 5, 2016 - 4:24PM

    Reminds me of Ernest Hemingway’s “For whom the Bell Tolls”.Recommend

  • mirestan
    Apr 5, 2016 - 4:33PM

    Noting will happen. these guys have team of Lawyers working for them, They will find some loop holes.Recommend

  • Khalid Farooq
    Apr 5, 2016 - 4:52PM

    What the Sharif family did may not be illegal however such tax evasive practice’s are considered unethical all over the world. However merely being unethical or being a hypocrite has never stopped anyone in Pakistan from staying in their seat be it the seat of a peon or a PMRecommend

  • Anon
    Apr 5, 2016 - 5:09PM

    The big difference with WIkileaks is that Wikileaks decided to dump as much material as possible in the public domain. This doesnt seem to be the case where journalists will make judgement calls on what is and isnt to be published!Recommend

  • Anon
    Apr 5, 2016 - 5:11PM

    Alas the issue is too complex to make much of a splash in Pakistan. With a carefully cultivated illiterate population, questions on “offshore accounts” and legal “tax evasion” arent going to be understood enough to create pressure for any kind of accountability.Recommend

  • PPP ka Jialla
    Apr 5, 2016 - 5:26PM

    Hey M.S.
    Besides the Sharif family, the Panama Papers also reveal that Former Pakistan prime minister late Benazir Bhutto, her aide Abdul Rehman Malik and nephew Hassan Ali Jaffery Bhutto set up a company, Petroline International Inc, in the British Virgin Islands in 2001.Recommend

  • freed
    Apr 5, 2016 - 8:42PM

    Author should not under estimate the talent of minister of misintformation. No amount of leaked proof can outlast him. He can go tor years and years, only certain character can do this.Recommend

  • concern
    Apr 5, 2016 - 10:23PM

    PM will be saved by those journalists who have been awarded with performance award,,,this year…Recommend

  • concern
    Apr 5, 2016 - 11:19PM

    Prime Minister of Pakistan will be saved by those journalist who have been awarded with performance awardRecommend

  • Jamil Chaudri
    Apr 5, 2016 - 11:43PM

    Ask Prof Dr Hoodbhoy for a solution. May 2012 he told us that ALL Pakis should PROUDLY become BAYGHAIRAT. You see this happens when pseudo-philosophers (one eyed in the land of the blind) start teaching the NEW MORALITY.
    Perhaps he said that with the tongue in cheek (or as a irony).
    I would suggest that the Republic should take over all Sharif’s assets and use them to establish a FOUNDATION (BUNYAD) for the education of female children. It should not be the Army that does that but the House of Representatives should take some such measures.Recommend

  • Rex Minor
    Apr 6, 2016 - 12:20AM

    One thing is sure, unless the offshore accounts are closed and sealed, the corruption at the highest level of the Government will not cease in the country, since they are usualy used to launder the commission payments made by the weapon suppliers.

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • Ahsan Anis
    Apr 6, 2016 - 2:30AM

    Good luck prosecuting any Sharif or Bhutto family members. The commission Nawaz set up is a complete farce, it won’t find anything and in the end acquit him. Recommend

  • Zahid
    Apr 6, 2016 - 2:53AM

    Nothing will be happened in Pakistan
    PM Pakistan the Sharif family the Bhuttos everyone safe in Pakistan
    Law and constitute only for poor Pakistani all richest are above the law
    Sorry for Pakistani nothing will be changeRecommend

  • Pakistani in Toronto
    Apr 6, 2016 - 6:01AM

    Dear Naveed (author), please note that NAB proceedings can be initiated by anyone and NOT only by executive order. Please check section ‘Accountability’:

  • Rozina
    Apr 7, 2016 - 6:20PM

    @Pakistani in Toronto

    You do have a point but in reality, the NAB did not take any notice of the case. The author, being a seasoned journalist, analysed it right that without the PM’s nod, NAB or FIA none will move. We have spineless bureaucrats (read morons) heading such key institutions. Only public pressure can work or no-non-sense chief justice. Recommend

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