Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam have been arrested after flying back to the country to face lengthy prison sentences, in a high-stakes gamble to galvanise their party ahead of an election on 25 July.
Uniformed men escorted the Sharifs, who were sentenced in absentia last week on corruption charges, from their aeroplane after it touched down in the central city of Lahore at around 8.45pm.
Sharif’s son-in-law is serving a one-year prison sentence on the same charge, which stems from the purchase of luxury apartments in the UK that the court said were bought with illegally acquired money.
A spokesman for Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party confirmed that they were arrested. Local Geo TV said Sharif and his daughter were taken to a waiting aircraft to be flown out of Lahore, where more than 10,000 Sharif supporters were gathered to greet him.
Their return could shake up an election race marred by accusations that Pakistan’s powerful military is working behind the scenes to skew the contest in favour of former cricket hero Imran Khan, who describes Sharif as a “criminal” who deserves no support.
Adding to the tension surrounding the forthcoming poll, a suicide bomber hit an election rally of a regional party in south-western Pakistan, killing 85 people. The bombing was the biggest attack in Pakistan in more than a year and the third incident of election-related violence this week.
More than 100 people were wounded in the suicide attack at the election rally in the town of Mastung.
Clashes broke out on Friday evening at the main highway entry point to Lahore between pro-Sharif protesters and police, who had been deployed in their thousands.
Mobile phone service had been cut off in mid-afternoon, as Sharif’s brother, Shehbaz, led about 10,000 party supporters on a march towards the city centre in defiance of a citywide ban on public gatherings, according to a Reuters witness.
Nawaz Sharif decried the tactics ordered by the caretaker government that took over in June ahead of the general election, as Pakistan’s constitution requires.
“What credibility will these elections have when the government is taking such a drastic action against our people and this crackdown is taking place all over the country?” he told Reuters at the airport in Abu Dhabi as he waited for a connecting flight to Lahore.
Pakistan’s third major political movement, the Pakistan Peoples Party, joined the criticism of the crackdown, with its prime ministerial candidate Bilawal Bhutto Zardari questioning why Sharif’s supporters would be prevented from gathering.
“Why is Lahore under siege? Right to peaceful protest is fundamental for democracy,” tweeted Bhutto Zardari, the son of two-time prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated at a political rally in 2007.
The country’s media regulator told local news channels to abstain from airing statements “by political leadership containing defamatory and derogatory content targeting various state institutions specifically judiciary and armed forces”, the regulator said in a statement. (Courtesy The Guardian)