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Facing arrest, Nawaz Sharif leaves Abu Dhabi for Pakistan, calls for support

Kaswar Klasra

Published: Updated:

Their flight, Etihad Airways flight EY243, earlier scheduled to land at 6.15pm local time at Lahore's Allama Iqbal International Airport, took off at 6.02pm PST after it suffered a nearly three-hour delay. It is now expected to land around 9pm PST.

An airport official, when approached by our correspondent, had stated the reason for the hold-up in Abu Dhabi as a delay in an Etihad flight arriving from Bangkok, which was supposed to fly EY243's passengers to Lahore.

The father-daughter duo will likely be arrested on their arrival at Lahore airport, from where they are expected to be taken to Islamabad by helicopter and moved to Adiala jail. The state has also provisioned for the eventuality of the flight being diverted to Islamabad.

Cellphone services have been suspended in certain parts of Lahore in anticipation of their arrival, and contingents of Rangers have been deployed at and around Lahore Airport.

Newspaper Dawn earlier reported that, in a video message tweeted by Maryam, the former premier urged his followers to stand with him and “change the fate of the country”.

“The country is at a critical juncture right now,” Nawaz is quoted to have said. “I have done what I could. I am aware that I have been sentenced to 10 years [in prison] and I will be taken to a jail cell straight away. But I want the Pakistani nation to know that I am doing this for you.”

It was reported on Thursday that Nawaz Sharif is preparing to return to Pakistan along with his daughter on Friday to appeal his conviction in a court case. He has taken this decision even as his wife fights for life in a hospital in Britain.

Nawaz Sharif is currently in London along with his daughter visit his ailing wife Kalsoom Nawaz, who is under treatment at London’s Harley Street Clinic. Last Friday, an accountability court in Pakistan sentenced Nawaz Sharif to 10 years, his daughter Maryam to seven years and son-in-law, Muhammad Safdar to one-year imprisonment in a corruption case named Avenfield Apartment reference.

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The sentences, delivered in absentia, against Nawaz Sharif and his daughter who is widely seen as his political heir, have dealt a blow to their Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party. Since then, rumors have been doing the rounds in Islamabad’s power corridors suggesting the duo wouldn’t come back to avoid arrest.

However, Sharif said on Wednesday that he will be arriving in Lahore from London only to fulfil his pledge to “honor the vote”. “I have decided to return despite the fact I can see the bars of prison in front of my eyes,” Sharif told journalists in London in a statement that was also aired on Facebook live.

General elections

Pakistan is to hold general elections on July 25 and Sharif’s political party is facing numerous campaign challenges. Under these circumstances, Sharif’s announcement has excited workers of his party across country.

Such is the excitement in Sharif’s family and his political party that his 85-year-old mother announced to personally receive her elder son at Lahore International airport only to make sure law enforcement agencies do not arrest him.

“Take me to airport to receive Nawaz. I will see who dares arrest my son,” a family source told Al Arabiya English quoting Sharif’s aging mother. However, her younger son, Shahbaz Sharif, former Chief Minister of Punjab province in Pakistan, didn’t agree with the idea.

Many in Pakistan believe Nawaz Sharif’s return would give impetus to his party’s election campaign across Pakistan. “It’s a matter of pride for us as our leader has chosen to return only to face courts unlike Pervez Musharraf, former military ruler, who is hiding in Dubai,” A senior PML-N stalwart told Al Arabiya English.

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Experts in Pakistan believe Nawaz’s expected return will boost his party’s election campaign. There are indications that democracy in Pakistan is running but at a slow pace. The July 25 poll marks Pakistan's second democratic transition which itself shows democracy is flourishing.

Sharif’s party workers and regional heads have been accusing country’s powerful military of trying to influence the elections and have called upon the Election Commission of Pakistan to take notice of political engineering.

They believe the case against Sharif’s family was part of wider machinations by country’s security establishment to weaken the PML-N, which according to him is Pakistan’s most popular political party. Even some sections of local media in Pakistan say Sharif’s PML-N has faced intimidation.

Pakistan military has denied the allegations and said it supports democracy.

Poll surveys

However, some surveys suggest that Sharif’s PML-N is doing great in the run up to the elections. A survey by an independent consultant namely Gallup Pakistan put PML-N on top with 26 percent as compared to Imran Khan’s PTI with 25 percent. “PML-N will definitely gain following Sharif’s return who is undoubtedly country’s most popular and senior politician,” Ikram Raja, a political analyst said.

A source in Pakistan’s caretaker government told Al Arabiya English that there are intelligence reports suggesting Nawaz Sharif’s arrest soon after he returns, may create a situation in Lahore, provincial capital of Pakistan’s populous Punjab province which is considered stronghold of Sharif’s PML-N.

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Sharif’s party has made elaborate plans to welcome his leader. Thousands of political workers are expected to rally toward Allama Iqbal International Airport on Friday to welcome Sharif. Shehbaz Sharif, President of PML-N, has also advised his party workers to accord a warm welcome.

“He made Pakistan an atomic power. He’s a lion. Let’s welcome this son of soil with zeal and zest,” Shehbaz told his party workers. Speaking to journalists, he said workers will remain peaceful throughout rally.