Pakistan’s ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif was arrested at an airport last night and ferried immediately to jail after returning home to face prison for corruption, as the country’s election campaign descended into violence.
The figurehead of Pakistan’s ruling party was held and taken to a waiting plane to be flown to Islamabad soon after touching down in his Lahore stronghold.
His arrest came after a sweeping security crackdown devised to prevent supporters from greeting him in a show of strength. However, hours before Mr Sharif arrived with his daughter Maryam, who was also arrested, an Isil suicide bomber killed at least 132 people at an election rally in Baluchistan province.
The blast in Mastung was the third election bomb attack this week and followed the killing of four hours earlier at a rally in Bannu.
The campaign also saw the ex-wife of Imran Khan publish a tell-all memoir less than two weeks before polling. Reham Khan’s salacious autobiography contains a series of allegations about the cricketer-turned-politician’s personal life, leading to accusations from his party she is seeking to cause maximum damage to his poll chances.
Ms Khan, a former BBC weather presenter now living in London, has said she only wanted to tell her story.
Pakistan’s July 25 election will mark only the third time in its history the country has had a democratic transition of power. But it comes amid accusations from Mr Sharif that his long-time enemies in the military establishment are undermining his Pakistan Muslim League’s (PML-N) campaign in favour of Mr Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf party.
While Mr Sharif and his daughter are barred from standing in the poll, their return and surrender is seen as an electoral gamble to try to galvanise the party now led by his brother after it lost ground in recent weeks to Mr Khan.
Mr Sharif’s plane landed after being delayed nearly three hours and following a security operation apparently designed to ensure his followers could not put on a show of support.
After mass arrests of party workers on Thursday night, yesterday began with shipping containers blocking major roads and mobile phone coverage was soon cut across swathes of the city. “What credibility will these elections have when the government is taking such a drastic action against our people?” Mr Sharif asked.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of Benazir Bhutto, the assassinated former prime minister, and now himself a candidate for the third-placed Pakistan People’s Party, asked why Lahore appeared to be “under siege”.
Mr Sharif was ousted from office last year after the Panama Papers leak linked his family to offshore companies and a portfolio of expensive London properties. An anti-graft court last week sentenced him and his daughter in absentia while they were in London.
Uniformed men escorted the Sharifs from their aeroplane after it touched down in the central city of Lahore at around 8.45pm local time, a Reuters reporter on board said.
A spokesman for the PML-N party confirmed they were arrested soon afterwards. Local Geo TV said Mr Sharif and his daughter were taken to another waiting aircraft to be flown out of Lahore, where more than 10,000 supporters were gathered to greet him. He is expected to appeal his conviction and seek bail.
His son-in-law is currently serving a one-year prison sentence on the same charge.
In a video message yesterday reportedly from aboard his aircraft en route to Pakistan, he said he was returning knowing he would be taken to prison.
Clashes broke out yesterday evening at the main highway entry point to Lahore between pro-Sharif protesters and police who had been deployed in their thousands, a Reuters witness said. There were no immediate reports of injuries.
Mobile phone service had been cut off in mid-afternoon, as Mr Sharif’s brother, Shehbaz, led around 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.
The country’s media regulator warned 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. (© Daily Telegraph London)