Pakistan security high for Sharif return

Supporters of Sharif hold posters of him and chant slogans as they gather at the venue where his younger brother Shahbaz will lead a rally towards the airport ahead of the arrival of Nawaz from London, in Lahore. — AFP photo

LAHORE, Pakistan: Pakistan authorities locked down parts of Lahore for the return from London of former premier Nawaz Sharif, who faces possible arrest and a 10-year prison sentence ahead of already tense elections his party insists are being rigged.

Sharif was sentenced in absentia last week to 10 years in prison by a corruption court over the purchase of high-end properties in London, dealing a serious blow to his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party’s bid weeks ahead of the July 25 polls.

He has claimed he is being targeted by the military.

“I know that … I will be directly taken to jail. I want to tell Pakistanis I have been doing this for you … Walk with me, join hands with me and change the destination of the country,” he said in a video released by his party.

AFP could not immediately confirm the production date of the video, which showed Sharif seated on a plane.

His brother Shahbaz Sharif, who now heads the PML-N, said that hundreds of their workers and supporters had been arrested ahead of Nawaz’s expected return in what he said was ‘naked’ pre-poll rigging against their party.

The younger Sharif has pledged to marshal a welcome for the former prime minister, saying thousands of supporters would travel to Lahore airport to back Nawaz.

“The whole world knows that PML-N is being targeted. We’ll go to the airport tomorrow despite this brutality, and we will remain completely peaceful,” Shahbaz said.

Up to 8,000 police officers are set to be deployed in Lahore, according to police chief Sajjad Hasan Man. Containers could be seen blocking some Lahore roads, while travel to and from the airport had reportedly been restricted.

Authorities have pinpointed at least 50 locations in the city to block if needed, according to a police official, who requested anonymity as he was not authorised to speak to the media. Despite the crackdown, PML-N backers continued to flock to the city, vowing to confront authorities if challenged.

“We are going to airport and if anybody stops us then we are ready to go to jail. We can go beyond our limits for our leader,” Khurram Ehsan, 36, told AFP.

Nawaz left London late Thursday, where his wife is being treated for cancer. Analyst Zahid Hussain said the ex-leader’s return was the latest chapter in his long confrontation with the country’s security establishment.

“He’s fighting back for his political life,” Hussain told AFP. However, it remained to be seen how the move would affect his party’s chances ahead of the polls.

Since Nawaz returned to London last month, the PML-N has fallen into disarray and failed to mount an organised campaign to rally the base ahead of the polls.

“Certainly it would have been worse for the party’s prospects had he not come,” Hussain added.

The election will pit the PML-N against its main rival, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, which is led by cricket star-turned-politician Imran Khan. — AFP

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