By Arab News
By Mehreen Zahra-Malik
Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was arrested on Friday at an airport in Lahore and taken to jail as he arrived home from London.
His return came a week after an anti-graft court sentenced him to 10 years in prison for corruption in connection with his family’s purchase of property in the English capital.
Sharif’s daughter and heir apparent, Maryam Nawaz Sharif, who accompanied him from London, was also arrested. She was convicted of corruption in the same case and sentenced to seven years.
In video footage filmed moments after their flight landed, Sharif and his daughter appeared somber but confident as they disembarked from an Etihad Airways plane.
“Yes, they have landed in Lahore and have been arrested,” Mohammed Zubair, a senior PML-N leader, told Arab News.
“This is a historic moment. Even though our party completely disagrees with the decision of the court, as law-abiding citizens they have arrived in Pakistan to face jail.”
Sharif and his daughter had been in London attending to Sharif’s wife, Kulsoom Nawaz, who is being treated there for cancer and has been in a coma since suffering a heart attack last month.
Speaking to reporters by phone earlier, while awaiting a connecting flight in Abu Dhabi, Sharif said: “Whether they arrest me here or after I reach Lahore, I am ready. They can’t shake my resolve.”
The return of the Sharifs to Pakistan comes amid widespread concern that the country’s all-powerful army is meddling in politics ahead of July 25 elections, and complaints that the news media is being suppressed.
Sharif has openly accused the military of working to sway the election in favor of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) party led by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan.
The opposition Pakistan People’s Party also alleged “pre-poll rigging” this week but did not specifically accuse the military.
Sharif’s first term as prime minister ended in resignation under military pressure in 1995 and his second was cut short by an army coup in 1999. In July 2017, he was dismissed from his third term as PM by the Supreme Court over revelations in the 2016 Panama Papers that the Sharif family had bought apartments in London using offshore companies.
Close allies of Sharif and his daughter said the pair had come back to Pakistan to launch an appeal against their convictions, which they will do on Monday and seek bail. However, their return is also expected to bear important political dividends.
“Their vote bank, which was confused after the verdict about what would happen to their leader, will be gelled together again and vote with more vigor and energy,” said veteran journalist and long-time Sharif observer Nusrat Javed.
“From today, things will turn from merely a sympathy vote into a protest vote. Until now, people thought Nawaz was not being treated fairly by the judiciary and the military. Now they will see him as being openly defiant.
“Think about the symbolism of a man returning to face jail with his daughter. Voters will see this as an act of defiance and courage. It will ignite protest and anger.”
Pakistan’s caretaker government moved quickly against leaders and supporters of PML-N around the country who tried to hold rallies and travel to the Lahore airport to welcome Sharif.
More than 10,000 police officers were deployed across Lahore on Friday to contain the protests, while internet and mobile services remained switched off all day. The Metro Bus, a rapid-transport system that runs through the city, was also closed for the day and giant shipping containers were used to block major routes.
In the afternoon, before the Sharifs arrived, Interior Minister Shaukat Javed said that anyone who tried to get past the Lahore Abdullah Gul Interchange, which leads directly to Lahore’s Allama Iqbal International Airport, “will be dealt with very strictly.”
In the past few days, police carried out dozens of raids across Lahore and arrested more than 400 PML-N supporters and leaders in what party leaders described as an attempt to prevent them from giving Sharif a hero’s welcome.
“I swear upon God this is worse than martial law,” said Hafiz Hassan, a PML-N supporter. His brother, a medical student who Hassan said is not involved in politics, was picked up by police on Thursday night, he added. “He had an exam today but they took him away forcefully. Who will make up for his missed exam?”
The authorities did not stop at arresting and intimidating PML-N party workers. On Friday, paramilitary rangers stopped Daniyal Aziz, a former minister in Sharif’s last Cabinet, as he drove in a convoy to Lahore on a major highway. A procession led by PML-N leader Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, who served as prime minister after Sharif was dismissed by the Supreme Court, was also stopped on the motorway.
In addition, buses carrying party supporters from Faisalabad and Sahiwal to Lahore were halted and dozens of people were arrested after clashes with police.
Before he was taken from Lahore, Sharif said the “draconian crackdown” in the city and other parts of Punjab showed that authorities were desperate to prevent tens of thousands of people from reaching Lahore airport to greet him and show their support.
“This is the worst kind of crackdown on democracy and rule of law in Pakistan,” he added.
Despite this, a rally led by Shahbaz Sharif — Nawaz Sharif’s brother, the PML-N president and three-time chief minister of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous and richest province — left the city’s ancient Lahori Gate area and made its way to the airport, flanked by more than 50,000 supporters, according to police and PML-N sources.
Live footage of the rally was screened by local news channels for several hours earlier in the day, but only still pictures were broadcast after the Sharifs’ flight entered Pakistani airspace.
Several journalists spoke about a forced media blackout of the Sharifs’ reception.
This is in line with severe restrictions placed on the media in recent days, with the army accused of intimidating major news organizations, such as Jang Group, into censoring content critical of the military, and preventing the circulation of Dawn, a leading English-language daily newspaper. Both are considered to be partial towards Sharif.
“Those who think they can scare us…open your ears and hear this,” Shahbaz Sharif said. “We are winning this election.”