Former PM Sharif held as he lands in Pakistan
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