(Bloomberg) -- Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was arrested after he landed in his home town of Lahore on Friday evening ahead of a national vote that his party says has been manipulated.
Sharif and his daughter Maryam, who were handed 10-year and seven-year jail sentences respectively last week by an anti-corruption court, arrived in Pakistan from London via Abu Dhabi and are now are being transferred to jail, according to broadcast footage. The pair will be transported by air to Islamabad, a National Accountability Bureau official told Bloomberg News earlier on Friday.
Thousands of Sharif loyalists gathered in Lahore, with party officials reporting clashes with the police in same areas. Sharif’s party has accused security forces of arresting hundreds of their workers and placing the city on lock-down. Shuakat Javed, the caretaker home minister for the provincial government, told reporters that mobile phone services are suspended in areas due to terror threats and that 124 people were arrested. Police had placed shipping containers across the city to block roads to prevent protesters reaching the airport.
Sharif’s dramatic return before a July 25 election follows a two-year corruption scandal that engulfed Pakistani politics after the leak of the so-called Panama Papers showed his family used offshore accounts to buy high-end London apartments. The former premier was disqualified from the top job by the Supreme Court last July, his third ousting since the 1990s.
The Sharif family has consistently denied any wrong doing and has criticized the judiciary’s handling of his case. Sharif said the nation’s powerful military -- which removed him in a 1999 coup -- has conspired to manipulate the vote against his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party in favor of his main political rival Imran Khan.
The armed forces, which have directly ruled Pakistan for almost half of its existence, have repeatedly denied interfering in the election. Khan, a former national cricket captain, has also rubbished claims that he is a tool of the army’s alleged attempts to bring a pliant government to power.
Sharif’s homecoming is being seen as a potential turning point for the electoral prospects of his party, which has been losing ground to Khan’s Movement for Justice, according to a Gallup Pakistan survey published this month. The Sharif family has sought to portray themselves as victims of the military establishment.
“It’s a move to charge up his supporters,” said Umbareen Javaid, chairwoman of the political science department at Punjab University.
On Wednesday, Sharif told reporters in London that the military’s main spy agency had intimidated the PML-N’s election candidates and its officers had told them to switch parties or run as independents. Sharif’s younger brother Shehbaz lead rallies across Lahore to drum up support for the ex-prime minister’s arrival and said the arrest of party workers amounted to “naked pre-poll rigging.”
“This rally is illegal,” caretaker Punjab minister Javed said, adding that force can be used on political workers trying to get close to the airport. “We’re neutral and here to enforce law.”
Pakistan’s television regulator said on Thursday it was of “grave concern” that local channels were airing political press conferences “containing defamatory and derogatory content targeting various state institutions specifically judiciary and armed forces.”
A spate of violence has also marred the campaigning of smaller parties. At least 70 people were killed by a suicide bomber in Mastung in the restive province of Balochistan on Friday. Balochistan Awami Party leader Siraj Raisani was killed in the blast and Haroon Bilour, a key leader of the Awami National Party, was also murdered in a suicide bombing in the northwestern city of Peshawar this week. Akram Khan Durrani of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal escaped a blast in northern Bannu on Friday.
“Strongly condemn the terrorist attack on Akram Durrani,” Imran Khan said on Twitter. “There seems to be a conspiracy to sabotage the 25 July elections but the people of Pakistan will not allow any design intended to target these historic elections to succeed.”
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