Ousted Sharif fly­ing home to face jail

Au­thor­i­ties lock down La­hore in prepa­ra­tion

Bangkok Post - - WORLD -

IS­LAM­ABAD: Ousted Pak­istani prime min­is­ter Nawaz Sharif and his daugh­ter Maryam, both sen­tenced to lengthy jail terms in ab­sen­tia, were due to re­turn to Pakistan later yes­ter­day in a high-stakes gam­ble to gal­vanise their be­lea­guered party ahead of a July 25 gen­eral elec­tion.

Au­thor­i­ties mo­bilised more than 10,000 po­lice of­fi­cers ahead of their ar­rival and plan to block roads with ship­ping con­tain­ers to shut down the city of La­hore. Sup­port­ers of Sharif’s Pakistan Mus­lim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party say they will march to the air­port there, where the for­mer prime min­is­ter is due to land, in de­fi­ance of a ban on all pub­lic ral­lies.

Sharif was to re­turn from Bri­tain one week af­ter an anti-cor­rup­tion court handed him a 10-year jail term over the pur­chase of lux­ury Lon­don flats and sen­tenced his daugh­ter and po­lit­i­cal heir to seven years in prison.

Their re­turn could shake up an elec­tion race marred by claims Pakistan’s pow­er­ful mil­i­tary was skew­ing the con­test in favour of ex-cricket hero Im­ran Khan.

Sharif al­leges the mil­i­tary is aid­ing a “ju­di­cial witch­hunt” against him and his PML-N party. The party’s past five years in power has been punc­tu­ated by the civil-mil­i­tary dis­cord that has plagued Pakistan since its in­cep­tion.

“Nawaz re­ally be­lieves this is about democ­racy and his legacy,” Mu­sadik Ma­lik, Sharif ally and for­mer PML-N cab­i­net min­is­ter, said.

“That is why he is will­ing to lose 10 years of his life over this.”

Sharif’s PML-N ex­pects a groundswell of sup­port as he was to re­turn from Lon­don, where his wife Kul­soom is crit­i­cally ill and un­der­go­ing cancer treat­ment.

To pre­vent PML-N work­ers stag­ing a hero’s wel­come, au­thor­i­ties said they will ar­rest the fa­ther and daugh­ter upon land­ing and trans­port them to the cap­i­tal Is­lam­abad by he­li­copter, lo­cal me­dia re­ported.

Party of­fi­cials say the po­lice have started a crack­down against them, de­tain­ing hun­dreds of work­ers early yes­ter­day.

Re­cent opin­ion polls sug­gest PML-N has lost its lead na­tion­ally to the Pakistan Tehreek-e-In­saf (PTI) party of arch-ri­val Mr Khan, whose anti-cor­rup­tion mes­sage has res­onated with many Pak­ista­nis.

Mr Khan has painted Sharif as a “crim­i­nal” who has looted the state for decades, and wel­comes his prison term as over­due ac­count­abil­ity.

Sharif was or­dered jailed af­ter fail­ing to ex­plain how the fam­ily ac­quired the Lon­don flats in a case stem­ming from 2016 Panama Pa­pers rev­e­la­tions that showed they owned the apart­ments through off­shore com­pa­nies. Maryam was con­victed for con­ceal­ing own­er­ship of the apart­ments. The both deny wrong­do­ing.

Sharif, 68, has cast him­self as a de­fender of democ­racy, a far cry from the start of his po­lit­i­cal life when he was the pro­tege of mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor Gen­eral Zia ul-Haq and had his ca­reer nur­tured by the gen­er­als in the 1980s.

He was elected prime min­is­ter in 199093. A se­cond stint in power was ended by a mil­i­tary coup in 1999, prompt­ing a pe­riod in jail for Sharif and years in ex­ile in Lon­don. When he re­turned to power in 2013, he clashed with the mil­i­tary over how to deal with Is­lamist mil­i­tants and his de­sire for friend­lier re­la­tions with India.

Af­ter the Supreme Court dis­qual­i­fied Sharif in July 2017 for not declar­ing a small source of in­come which he de­nied re­ceiv­ing, he toured the nu­clear-armed coun­try urg­ing vot­ers to pro­tect the “sanc­tity of the vote”.

“De­spite see­ing the bars of prison in front of my eyes, I am go­ing to Pakistan,” Sharif told Pak­istani jour­nal­ists this week in Lon­don, where he vowed to re-as­sert “civil­ian supremacy”.

The mil­i­tary, which has ruled Pakistan for about half its history since 1947, has de­nied in­ter­fer­ing in politics. It plans to place 371,000 sol­diers around polling sta­tions so there can be a “free and fair” elec­tions, it added.

Sharif’s re­turn comes at a time of dwin­dling for­tunes for his party, which one year ago was con­sid­ered a run-away favourite to re­tain power.

Af­ter the Supreme Court ousted Sharif, the courts barred him from head­ing the PML-N. His brother She­hbaz be­came PML-N’s pres­i­dent, but Sharif re­mains the power be­hind the throne.

REUTERS

Ousted prime min­is­ter of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, ap­pears with his daugh­ter Maryam, at a news con­fer­ence at a ho­tel in Lon­don be­fore their flight.

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