Dubai: With his return to Pakistan scheduled on Friday to face certain arrest, ousted Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has once again stolen the limelight in the run up to the general elections on July 25.
Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz are scheduled to land at Lahore international airport from London on Friday evening in a bid to lift the election campaign of their ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party, which has been fading away in their absence.
Sharif’s main rival Imran Khan, chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), was seen as the ultimate beneficiary of the situation as the Sharif family went away to London to tend to Sharif’s ailing wife, Kulsoom Nawaz Sharif — who has cancer and is on a ventilator.
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Authorities in Pakistan, however, are in a fix on how to stop hundreds of thousands of supporters who are gearing up to welcome back Sharif and his daughter on Friday on what analysts have called a “historic” day in Pakistani politics: never before has a political leader flown back to Pakistan to face jail after being convicted by a court.
PML-N officials in Lahore said yesterday that police had detained hundreds of members of the party in an attempt to stifle its ability to launch street protests. Mohammad Mahdi, PML-N media coordinator, said that nearly 500 workers had been detained in a “massive crackdown,” including raids on the homes of a number of some of the party’s local councillors.
While Sharif’s close party supporters are sceptical about his return today, the former prime minister is most likely to prove them wrong once he lands in Lahore, giving a major boost to his election campaign and help him garner sympathy votes regardless of the fact whether he and his daughter are taken straight to jail.
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But some PML-N members say the preventive arrest of workers who handle street level party organisation will make it harder for them to stage rallies and protests on Sharif’s return, when he will challenge the verdict and sentence against him.
Containers outside the Race Course police station in Lahore. Online
Sharif was convicted and sentenced to prison in absentia by a Pakistani anti-corruption court last week, in a verdict that is likely to further disrupt an already chaotic campaign for national elections.
The sentence, 10 years in prison and a fine of $10.6 million (Dh38.90 million), came almost a year after Pakistan’s Supreme Court removed Sharif from office and less than five months after the court barred him from holding office for life.
His daughter Maryam Nawaz, who has been pitched as his political heir and a potential prime minister, has also been sentenced to seven years for “abetment” after she was found to be “instrumental in concealing the properties of her father”. She has also been disqualified from contesting the elections. The PML- N considers it a conspiracy to oust them from Pakistani politics and the election process.
The case stemmed from the so-called Panama Papers leak that revealed undeclared luxury properties owned by the Sharif family in London since 1993. The four flats are in Avenfield House on London’s Park Lane. The Panama Papers leak in 2015 showed that Sharif’s children had links to offshore companies, which were allegedly used to channel funds and buy foreign assets.
Addressing the media in London, Sharif vowed he would return to Pakistan come what may. “Despite seeing the bars of prison cell in front of my eyes, I am going to Pakistan,” Sharif said at a gathering at a hotel in central London’s Mayfair district on Wednesday.
“I ask the people, especially women, to come out of their homes like tigers, and cross all barricades to reach the Lahore airport. No one can stop a mass gathering of the people,” he said. “It is not easy to leave my wife on a ventilator in a hospital but I am returning along with my daughter for our nation. I am coming back even if they send me to the gallows.” he said.
“We used to hear about ‘a state within a state’ but now things have gone to the extent that there’s ‘a state above the state’. July 25 will be a defining moment in the country’s history,” Sharif said, urging people to vote for “civilian supremacy”.
It is not easy to leave my wife on a ventilator in a hospital but I am returning along with my daughter for our nation. I am coming back even if they send me to the gallows… We used to hear about ‘a state within a state’ but now things have gone to the extent that there’s ‘a state above the state’.”
- Nawaz Sharif | Ousted Pakistan prime minister
Sharif, a towering figure in modern Pakistani politics and largely seen as a staunch defender of civilian governance amid the military backdrop of the country, has been Pakistan’s prime minister three times but never completed a term.
Sharif also told reporters in London that the military’s main spy agency has intimidated the PML-N’s election candidates and has told them to switch parties or run as independents.
Maryam Nawaz said returning to Pakistan was the most difficult decision for the family.
A massive rally is expected to be led by Sharif’s younger brother and PML-N president Shahbaz Sharif in Lahore. Clashes between supporters and security forces are imminent, though Punjab’s provincial government has denied allegations of victimisation. But local television channels showed police placing shipping containers across the city to block roads in order to prevent protesters reaching the airport.
Shahbaz Sharif told his party workers in Lahore that people of Pakistan would give their verdict and come out in large numbers to give a historic welcome to the ousted prime minister. “Nawaz Sharif rules the hearts of the people and that will become clear on July 13 when he will be have historic welcome on his arrival,” he said.
Nawaz Sharif rules the hearts of the people and that will become clear on July 13 when he will be have historic welcome on his arrival.”
- Shahbaz Sharif | President of PML-N
Syed Talat Hussain, a leading journalist in Pakistan tweeted: “Hundreds of party workers arrested in Lahore and elsewhere before Nawaz and Maryam’s arrival in one of the widest crackdown in recent years. And this is by the caretaker government that is supposed to supervise fair polls.”
Another top journalist and political analyst Kamran Khan tweeted: “Crackdown against the PML-N is underway. Pakistan’s history is evident that use of state power to crush political parties provides new life to them … Ongoing operation against the PML-N is like an oxygen for it.”
Crackdown against the PML-N is underway. Pakistan’s history is evident that use of state power to crush political parties provides new life to them… Ongoing operation against the PML-N is like an oxygen for it.”
- Kamran Khan | Pakistani political analyst
Pakistan minister confirms Sharif will be arrested at Lahore airport
Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will be arrested upon landing at Lahore airport on Friday as he travels from London to appeal his conviction and face a 10-year jail sentence handed down by an anti-corruption court last week.
Sharif and his daughter Maryam, who was given a seven-year sentence by the same court, won’t be allowed to leave the airport, Information Minister Syed Ali Zafar said in broadcast comments. “He is convicted, so he has to be arrested first and can’t be allowed to roam around in the city,” he said. “The National Accountability Bureau’s team and the Punjab Government have made arrangements to deal with the situation. It is their responsibility to maintain law and order,” the minister said while talking to reporters at the Parliament House.
Nawaz Sharif is convicted, so he has to be arrested first and can’t be allowed to roam around in the city. The National Accountability Bureau’s team and the Punjab Government have made arrangements to deal with the situation. It is their responsibility to maintain law and order.”
- Syed Ali Zafar | Pakistan Information Minister
The dramatic return by Sharif before the July 25 national election follows a two-year corruption scandal that engulfed Pakistani politics after the leak of the so-called Panama Papers showed his family used offshore accounts to buy high-end London apartments.
Regarding reservations of Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and PML-N on the caretaker government set-up, Ali Zafar said under Article 19, each and every person had the right to freedom of speech. However, the interim government was all committed to deliver in larger national interest and continue serving the people of Pakistan with dedication, he said.
Sharif, the former premier, was disqualified from the top job by the Supreme Court last July, his third ousting since the 1990s. “Nawaz Sharif is coming back to fulfil his promise to the masses,” his younger brother Shahbaz said on Twitter. “He knows that he will be put behind bars.” Sharif maintains that the nation’s powerful military, which removed him in a 1999 coup, has conspired to manipulate the vote against his PML-N party in favour of his main political rival Imran Khan.
The election in numbers
July 25 is when general elections are due in Pakistan
849 national and provincial assembly being contested
272 National Assembly seats to be contested
11,855 is the number of candidates taking part in the polls
105.9m is the total number of eligible voters for this election
19.7m new voters in the 2018 Pakistan elections