ISLAMABAD - A five-judge panel of Pakistan's Supreme Court on Friday disqualified thrice-elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from holding office over allegations of corruption and ordered criminal charges be filed against him and his family.
The court panel in a unanimous decision said Sharif was disqualified for not remaining "truthful and honest" after considering evidence against him. It also ruled that Sharif could no longer serve as a member of the National Assembly, a powerful lower house of the parliament.
The court directed the country's anti-corruption body to file corruption charges against Sharif, his two sons and daughter in the next six weeks for concealing their assets. The panel also ordered corruption charges filed against Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, a close relative of Sharif.
Sharif's party expressed its disappointment over the court order.
"This decision is not surprising but we are disappointed," Information Minister Maryam Aurangzeb told reporters shortly after the ruling. She said their Pakistan Muslim League ruling party will issue a detailed reaction after consulting Sharif's advisers.
The court asked President Mamnoon Hussain to "ensure continuation of the democratic process" and Hussain was expected to convene the National Assembly once Sharif's ruling party nominates his successor.
After the court's ruling, Sharif consulted party leaders on nominating a candidate to replace him. That person will serve as prime minister until March 2018, when the next general elections will be held.
In the jam-packed courtroom Friday morning, the Supreme Court asked the Election Commission of Pakistan to issue notification of Sharif's removal. But Sharif quickly stepped down, saying he did it to show respect for the country's judiciary. In a statement, Sharif's office said justice had not been served.
Sharif's resignation created a murky legal mess with constitutional experts at a loss to explain who is in charge in Pakistan until his successor is nominated. It wasn't immediately clear when that would be or who it would be.
Legal experts say Sharif will now nominate a lawmaker of his choice to replace him under constitutional rules. They say Sharif's nominee will be elected by the National Assembly, where the ruling party enjoys majority.
"The Supreme Court has disqualified Nawaz Sharif for concealing his assets," Hashmat Habib, a legal expert said. He said the court's order was binding and Sharif and his family may not challenge it.
It was not the first time the judiciary has ordered the dismissal of an elected prime minister. In 2012, the court convicted the then-Premier Yusuf Raza Gilani in a contempt case, forcing him to step down.
The current case against Sharif and his family dates back to 2016, when documents leaked from a Panama-based law firm indicated that Sharif's sons owned several offshore companies.
Sharif's son Hussain Nawaz at the time acknowledged owning offshore companies but insisted they used legal money to set up businesses abroad.
However, the court-appointed investigators in July concluded a significant disparity existed between the Sharif family's declared wealth and its known sources of income.
Opposition lawmakers, who petitioned the court for disqualification of Sharif, welcomed the court decision, saying it was a victory for justice.
Pakistan opposition leader Imran Khan at a news conference congratulated the nation over Sharif's removal and announced a celebration of the legal battle against the "corrupt ruling elite" would be held in Islamabad on Sunday.
Sirajul Haq, who heads Pakistan's Jamaat-e-Islami party, told reporters that he had been fighting a legal battle to ensure the accountability of the "corrupt ruling elite."
Sharif's daughter, Maryam Nawaz in a tweet said the prime minister was sent home, "but only to see him return with greater force." She asked her party to "stay strong."