For­mer PM Sharif held as he lands in Pak­istan

The Guardian - - WORLD - Mem­phis Barker

Pak­istan’s for­mer prime min­is­ter Nawaz Sharif was ar­rested in La­hore air­port last night as he re­turned to face a 10-year prison sen­tence which he claimed was part of a mil­i­tary-backed con­spir­acy to deny his party a sec­ond term in an elec­tion due on 25 July.

Mil­i­tary po­lice boarded Sharif’s flight from Lon­don as it landed. Para­mil­i­tary rangers linked arms and bat­tled against Sharif’s sup­port­ers to es­cort the 68-year-old off the plane.

They also ar­rested Maryam, his daugh­ter, who on 6 July was sen­tenced with her fa­ther to seven years in a trial linked to the fam­ily’s own­er­ship of four lux­ury flats in Park Lane in Lon­don.

As the po­lit­i­cal drama un­folded in La­hore, fears of vi­o­lence also surged be­fore the polls, as 132 peo­ple were killed by a sui­cide bomber at a rally in Balochis­tan prov­ince.

“Who wants to go to jail?” Sharif told the Guardian from the Eti­had flight while in the air.

“But it is a very small price to pay for my mis­sion, which is to es­tab­lish the sanc­tity of the vote in Pak­istan.”

The run-up to the elec­tion has been dogged by al­le­ga­tions that the pow­er­ful mil­i­tary was “engi­neer­ing” the vote to pro­mote the main op­po­si­tion party, Pak­istan Tehreek-e-In­saf, led by the for­mer crick­eter Im­ran Khan. The mil­i­tary has de­nied the al­le­ga­tions.

The Na­tional Ac­count­abil­ity Bureau, Pak­istan’s anti-cor­rup­tion court, ruled this month that Sharif and his fam­ily laun­dered money in the 1990s to pay for the Park Lane flats, draw­ing on al­le­ga­tions that resur­faced in the 2016 Panama Pa­pers leak.

Be­fore Sharif’s re­turn, his brother Shah­baz, the for­mer chief min­is­ter of Pun­jab, led tens of thou­sands of sup­port­ers in a wel­come rally – but the car­a­van had to ne­go­ti­ate a city turned into a war­ren of roadblocks.

Po­lice ar­rested more than 500 work­ers from Sharif’s Pak­istani Mus­lim League (Nawaz) party in the hours be­fore his ar­rival, banned pub­lic gath­er­ings of more than five peo­ple and cut mo­bile phone sig­nals across La­hore. The me­dia reg­u­la­tor banned men­tions of “con­victed per­sons”, thwart­ing lo­cal jour­nal­ists from broad­cast­ing Sharif’s com­ments.

“What cred­i­bil­ity will the elec­tion have if the gov­ern­ment is tak­ing such ac­tion against our peo­ple?” he said.

Sharif planned to ap­peal against his con­vic­tion on land­ing but an­a­lysts doubted that he would be given bail be­fore the elec­tion.

The party lead­er­ship hopes that in­stead his sen­tence of “rig­or­ous im­pris­on­ment” – which could in­clude phys­i­cal labour – will play in its favour dur­ing the elec­tions, turn­ing him into a mar­tyr for civil­ian supremacy.

Sym­pa­thy for Sharif has also risen dur­ing the ill­ness of his wife, Kul­soom, who is in a coma in a Lon­don hospi­tal af­ter treat­ment for throat can­cer.

▲ Nawaz Sharif and his daugh­ter Maryam on the plane be­fore their ar­rest in La­hore yes­ter­day

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