Ousted Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam, both facing lengthy prison terms, were arrested minutes after landing in the country on Friday as they returned seeking to revitalise their flagging party ahead of the 25 July general election.
In rallies held in connection with their arrival, at least 50 people were injured during clashes between PML-N workers and police in Pakistan's Punjab province.
The country's anti-graft body — National Accountability Bureau — arrested Nawaz and Maryam in the Avenfield properties case within minutes upon their arrival in Lahore and shifted them to Sahala Rest House in Rawalpindi after declaring it a sub-jail.
"At least 50 people including 20 policemen have been injured during clashes between PML-N workers, the police and Pakistan Rangers mostly in Lahore and some adjoining districts in Punjab," Punjab Police spokesman Niyab Haider told PTI.
He said the major clashes took place late Friday night between the PML-N workers, the police and rangers at the Joray Pul, some five kilometres away from the Lahore airport, where the PML-N rally was stopped. The protesters pelted stones at the police and rangers when they fired tear gas on them.
"It was not understandable as to why the PML-N workers were pressing ahead to get to the airport despite the fact that Nawaz and Maryam were arrested at the airport and flown to Islamabad on a jet," he said.
"Some 25 PML-N workers and policemen have been injured in this clash," he said.
In two other clashes in Lahore at Ravi bridge and Bhutta Chowk Lahore, seven policemen and 10 PML-N workers suffered injuries.
PML-N spokesperson Marriyum Aurangzeb told PTI that a number of its workers had been injured in clashes with the police. "Thousands of our workers stopped at different entry points of Lahore who were coming from other parts of Lahore to join a rally to welcome Nawaz and Maryam."
She condemned the police for using force to stop PML-N workers. She also demanded the immediate release of its workers after the court directive.
The Lahore High Court on Friday ordered the release of over 370 PML-N workers who were detained ahead of its Lahore rally.
Thousands of people participated in the PML-N rally led by party president Shehbaz Sharif in Lahore that ended on Friday midnight without reaching the airport to welcome Nawaz and Maryam.
Nawaz Sharif, Maryam land in Lahore at 9.15 pm
The plane carrying Nawaz, the lifetime leader of PML-N, and Maryam landed at Lahore's Allama Iqbal International Airport at 9.15 pm IST, nearly three hours later than the scheduled arrival.
An airport official told a Dawn correspondent that the reason behind the delay was an Etihad flight from Bangkok running late, which was supposed to fly EY243's passengers to Lahore.
Earlier, Nawaz and Maryam flew to the UAE capital Abu Dhabi from London, where Nawaz's wife Kulsoom, suffering from throat cancer, is battling for her life.
According to an airport official, the father-daughter duo surrendered before a team of the country's anti-graft body — the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) — without any resistance upon their arrival.
Nawaz reportedly refused to sit in the vehicle of the Pakistan Rangers to get to the airport terminal. Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) officials took their passport for immigration.
According to media reports, dozens of security officials entered the plane after it landed and asked other passengers to leave. The duo's passports were seized by a three-member FIA team, and both were permitted to meet Begum Shamim Akhtar, Nawaz's mother, in the Haj Lounge.
Nawaz and Maryam were later sent on a special private plane bound for Islamabad International Airport. There were conflicting reports about where the father0daughter will be incarcerated for the time being. According to Dawn, a notification issued by the Islamabad chief commissioner said that the Sihala Police Training College rest house would serve as a sub-jail only for Maryam. However, other media reports claimed that both will be shifted to Adiala jail in Rawalpindi.
According to PTI, Nawaz and Maryam were shifted to Adiala jail in separate armoured vehicles escorted by police.
Rally in support of Nawaz Sharif
Around 10,000 police officers were deployed across Lahore to maintain law and order. The Punjab government also suspended mobile and internet services in Lahore.
Nawaz's PML-N party, led by its president and Sharif's younger brother Shehbaz, on Friday managed to take out a rally despite the imposition of Section 144 that bars assembly of more than five people.
Earlier, media reports and an official of the Civil Aviation Authority had said their plane was diverted to Islamabad to avoid any law and order situation in Lahore as a large number of the PML-N workers were heading in hundreds of vehicles to the city to welcome their leader.
The rally kicked off at the Lohari Gate in the afternoon and could manage to proceed a few kilometres as party workers struggled to remove cargo containers on their way. Close to the airport, Sharif's supporters clashed with police which otherwise did not stop them from removing the containers.
"It appears the Punjab caretaker government had reached a deal with the of PML-N withdrawing thousands of policemen to give a free hand to reach close to the Lahore airport and wind up the rally," a senior police officer told PTI.
"We have orders from our top command not to take action against the PML-N rally participants," he said.
The PML-N workers joined in the rally from different points in Lahore.
Talking to reporters before reaching the airport, Shehbaz said that "a sea of people" has turned up on Friday to give a historic reception to Nawaz.
"The people of Lahore has given a verdict ahead of 25 July polls," he declared. "I am thankful to the people of Lahore for coming out in such a huge number," he said, adding that the people have rejected the decision of the court to convict Nawaz and Maryam.
Pakistan’s third major political party, the Pakistan Peoples Party, joined the criticism of the crackdown, with its prime ministerial candidate Bilawal Bhutto Zardari questioning why Nawaz’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.
Understand the legal grounds for arrest of MNS after NAB conviction but on what grounds are workers and leaders being arrested? Why is Lahore under siege ? Right to peacful protest is fundamental for democracy.
— BilawalBhuttoZardari (@BBhuttoZardari) July 13, 2018
High stakes return
Nawaz and Maryam's return represents a high-stakes gamble for the three-times Pakistan prime minister, but could shake up an election race riven by accusations of Pakistan’s powerful military working behind the scenes to skew the contest in the favour of cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf chief had described Nawaz as a “criminal” who deserves no support.
Speaking to the BBC at Abu Dhabi airport as Nawaz waited to change planes, he said: "What credibility will these elections have when the government is taking such drastic action against our people and this crackdown is taking place all over the country?"
In a video message, tweeted by Maryam, the former prime minister urged his followers to stand with him and "change the fate of the country".
"The country is at a critical juncture right now," a grim-looking Sharif said.
Nawaz returned from Britain after an anti-corruption court handed him a 10-year jail term and sentenced his daughter and political heir to seven years in prison over the purchase of luxury flats in London in the 1990s.
Nawaz alleges the military is aiding a “judicial witch-hunt” against him and the PML-N. The party’s past five years in power has been punctuated by the civil-military discord that has plagued Pakistan since its inception.
“Democracy and a democratic government has to be respected,” Nawaz told Reuters. “There can’t be two parallel systems and two parallel governments running in a country. If that starts happening, it is catastrophic.”
The military, which has ruled Pakistan for about half of its history since 1947, has denied interfering in modern-day politics. It plans to place 3,71,000 soldiers around polling stations so there can a “free and fair” elections, an army spokesman said this week.
Nawaz’s return from London comes at a time of dwindling fortunes for his party, which a year ago was considered a runaway favourite to retain power.
Recent opinion polls suggest PML-N is losing its lead nationally to the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party of arch-rival Khan, whose anti-corruption message has resonated with many Pakistanis.
After the Supreme Court ousted Nawaz as prime minister last July, the courts barred him from heading the party he founded. His brother Shehbaz became PML-N’s president, but Nawaz remains the power behind the throne.
Since then, a host of his allies have been either disqualified by the courts, or face corruption cases. Many PML-N lawmakers have also defected to Khan’s party.
PML-N has also been shaken by internal divisions. Sections of the party oppose Nawaz’s combative approach against the army and fear it will turn off voters in a deeply conservative and patriotic Muslim nation of 208 million people.
The road ahead for the Sharifs
The options before Nawaz and his daughter Maryam options are two-fold. According to this Firstpost article, the former prime minister has the inherent right to challenge the verdict, who may then decide to suspend the sentence if there are sufficient grounds to prove that the NAB’s decision is based on flimsy grounds — that of having a work permit of a foreign country.
As noted earlier, the courts have not been able to prove that the Sharifs bought the Avenfield properties in London through the use of illegal assets. What has been established is that the Sharifs could not prove the source of their assets.
Sharif can also seek bail but if it is rejected, he will need a court to set aside the earlier verdict, pending further investigation, in order to walk free for the time being.
With inputs from agencies
Updated Date: Jul 14, 2018 14:29:00 IST