:: Peoples Time Online ::
Ousted Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam, both sentenced to lengthy jail terms in absentia, are due to return to Pakistan on Friday in a high-stakes gamble to galvanise their beleaguered party ahead of a July 25 general election.
Authorities have mobilised more than 10,000 police officers ahead of their arrival and plan to block roads with shipping containers to shut down the city of Lahore. Supporters of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party say they will march to the airport there, where the former prime minister is due to land, in defiance of a ban on all public rallies.
Sharif is returning from Britain one week after an anti-corruption court handed him a 10-year jail term over the purchase of luxury London flats and sentenced his daughter and political heir to seven years in prison.
Their return could shake up an election race marred by claims Pakistan’s powerful military was skewing the contest in favour of ex-cricket hero Imran Khan.
Sharif alleges the military is aiding a ‘judicial witchhunt’ against him and his PML-N party. The party’s past five years in power has been punctuated by the civil-military discord that has plagued Pakistan since its inception.
‘Nawaz really believes this is about democracy and his legacy,’ Musadik Malik, Sharif ally and former PML-N cabinet minister, told Reuters.‘That is why he is willing to lose 10 years of his life over this.’
Sharif’s PML-N expects a groundswell of support as he returns from London, where his wife Kulsoom is critically ill and undergoing cancer treatment.
To prevent PML-N workers staging a hero’s welcome on the streets, authorities said they will arrest the father and daughter upon landing and transport them to the capital Islamabad by helicopter, local media reported.
Party officials say the police have started a crackdown against them, detaining hundreds of workers in the early hours on Friday.
Recent opinion polls suggest PML-N has lost its lead nationally to the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party of arch-rival Khan, whose anti-corruption message has resonated with many Pakistanis.
Khan has painted Sharif as a ‘criminal’ who has looted the state for decades, and welcomes his prison term as overdue accountability.
Sharif was ordered jailed after failing to explain how the family acquired the London flats in a case stemming from 2016 Panama Papers revelations that showed they owned the apartments through off-shore companies. Maryam was convicted for concealing ownership of the apartments. The both deny wrongdoing.