Pakistan's top court on Thursday asked the government to investigate corruption allegations against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's family, delaying for two months a decision that could have jeopardized his political future.
The Supreme Court had widely been expected to announce punitive measures against Sharif's family members or even the prime minister himself, which would have put him under significant pressure. In 2012, the same court convicted then-Premier Yusuf Raza Gilani in a contempt case, forcing him to step down.
The court acted on petitions from opposition lawmakers dating back to documents leaked in 2016 from a Panama-based law firm that indicated Sharif's sons owned several offshore companies.
The court convened under tight security in Islamabad — with riot police cordoning off the roads around the tribunal building — but instead of the expected measures, it ordered that a joint government/intelligence service commission look into the matter.
The tribunal's five judges, in a 3-2 vote, decided to give the commission two months to probe the allegations.
The commission will have the authority to summon Sharif or anyone else from his family to answer questions on how huge sums of money ended up abroad in offshore companies, the court statement said.
"We welcome this decision," Defense Minister Khawaja Mohammad Asif told reporters after coming out of the courtroom. "We will fully cooperate with the joint investigation team."
Information Minister Maryam Aurangzeb said the decision marks "the defeat for all those who have been leveling baseless allegations against Nawaz Sharif."
Sharif's family has acknowledged owning offshore businesses.
The opposition used the petitions in an effort to force Sharif, in power since 2013, to resign over tax evasion and concealing foreign investment. Sharif has defended his financial record.
Senior opposition politician Mehnaz Rafi — from the party of cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, which was leading the petition — told the Associated Press before the court announced its decision that she hoped it would help recover tax money from Sharif's family and others who set up offshore companies to evade taxes.
If the court finds Sharif's family evaded paying taxes, she said, he should resign as he will no longer have "moral authority to remain in power."
Later Thursday, hundreds of jubilant Sharif supporters rallied in Islamabad and elsewhere in the country.
Khan's supporters also rallied, gathering earlier outside the Supreme Court. No violence was reported.
The prime minister has insisted that his father built up the family business before Sharif entered politics in the 1980s. Sharif has said he established a steel mill abroad while he was exiled to Saudi Arabia by former military ruler Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in a coup in 1999.
Those facing corruption allegations include Sharif's daughter Maryam Nawaz, who tweeted ahead of the decision that she was amazed and humbled by seeing so much support for her father from the people.