Ousted Pakistani premier Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam were arrested on their arrival in Lahore on Friday night to face lengthy prison sentences in a move aimed at galvanising their beleaguered PML-N party ahead of the July 25 general elections.
After being detained within an Etihad Airways flight from Abu Dhabi by personnel from the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) and Pakistan Rangers, Sharif and his daughter were put on a special flight to Islamabad in order to be moved to Adiala Jail in Rawalpindi.
The 68-year-old three-time premier and 44-year-old Maryam, his political heir, were sentenced in absentia for alleged corrupt practices linked to the acquisition of four apartments in London a week ago.
Sharif, who was ousted from the premier’s post by the Supreme Court in July last year for alleged corruption, was in London with Maryam to care for his wife Kulsoom, who is being treated for cancer and is in a coma.
The Etihad flight was boarded by the uniformed security personnel shortly after it landed at Lahore airport at 8.48pm and Sharif and his daughter were escorted to the terminal building. Instead of talking a car to the building, Sharif insisted on walking.
After clearing immigration, Sharif was formally arrested by a team from NAB. Local media reported that Sharif’s mother was at the airport to receive him and he was allowed to see her briefly.
Supporters of Sharif who accompanied him on the flight shouted slogans in his favour but were not allowed to disembark from the plane. The Pakistan Rangers encircled Sharif and his daughter and brought them out of the aircraft amid tight security. Other passengers were allowed to leave the aircraft only after their departure.
Sharif and Maryam were convicted by an accountability, or anti-corruption, court in what has come to be known as the Avenfield Apartments case and given jail terms of 10 and seven years respectively. Sharif was found guilty of owning assets beyond his known sources of income and Maryam was convicted of aiding and abetting her father in covering up a “conspiracy”.
Tens of thousands of supporters of Sharif, including some in a convoy led by his younger brother, former Punjab chief minister Shehbaz Sharif, were unable to meet the leader as the Pakistan Rangers had taken control of the airport and sealed the building. A number of flights were delayed due to the operation. The PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz) workers joined rallies despite a ban on public gatherings.
Apart from placing empty truck containers, the caretaker government of Punjab province blocked several key roads in Lahore and suspended mobile phone services as a security measure.
Local TV channels were not allowed to provide live coverage of Sharif’s return. Several journalists said on social media that they were prevented from airing interviews with Sharif or special programmes on his return.
Shehbaz Sharif, whose caravan had gathered at Lohari Gate, led the main welcoming rally to the airport. However, his convoy was unable to make it to the airport by the time Sharif’s flight landed.
Earlier, when his flight from Abu Dhabi to Lahore was delayed, Sharif wondered how a flight “that is never late” had been delayed and urged people to “think about who delayed this flight and why”. Asked if he believed returning to Pakistan in the current “tense” circumstances is a good idea, Sharif said he knew what the situation in the country is like.
“I know I have been handed a 10-year sentence and Maryam has been given seven years in jail, but we are returning because this country’s fate needs to change — we need to change it,” he said in a hastily arranged news conference that was conducted over phone as journalists were barred from meeting him at Abu Dhabi airport.
“The media also needs be brave and take a stand in the face of it all,” Sharif said, adding the media’s freedom is being curbed because “they see this nation has risen and the media is rising and they are afraid. Why else would they do all this?”
He added, “What is happening in this country today, what is happening in Lahore, raises questions regarding the elections. No other province is facing the situation we see in Lahore – hundreds of our party workers have been arrested, people are being pressured into switching loyalties. All of this raises a question mark on the credibility of the election.
“I am not afraid of being arrested. If I was, would I be coming back?…I am ready for it,” Sharif said.
The return of Sharif could shake up an election campaign marred by accusations that Pakistan’s military is working behind the scenes to skew the contest in favour of cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan.
Even PML-N’s rival, the Pakistan People’s Party, criticised the crackdown, with its leader Bilawal Bhutto Zardari questioning why Sharif’s supporters were being prevented from gathering. “Why is Lahore under siege? Right to peaceful protest is fundamental for democracy,” he tweeted.
Sharif has accused the military of aiding a “judicial witch-hunt” against him and the PML-N. The party’s five years in power has been punctuated by civil-military discord. The military, which has denied interfering in politics, plans to deploy 371,000 troops at polling stations for “free and fair” elections.
In a video message tweeted by Maryam, Sharif urged his followers to stand with him when he arrives and “change the fate of the country”. He said: “The country is at a critical juncture right now. I have done what I could. I am aware that I have been sentenced to 10 years and I will be taken to a jail cell straight away — but I want the Pakistani nation to know that I am doing this for you.”