In the lion’s den

By returning to Pakistan, where he was arrested as soon as his plane landed in Lahore, Nawaz Sharif is expected to make a crucial difference to the fortunes of his party in the July 25 parliamentary election.

Published : Jul 18, 2018 12:30 IST

Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam after their plane arrived in Lahore on July 13. Photograph released by the PML(N).

Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam after their plane arrived in Lahore on July 13. Photograph released by the PML(N).

Pakistan’s “deep state”, not satisfied with the outsize influence it already wields on the country’s politics, now seems to be on the verge of monopolising it once again. It has struck with vengeance against former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for his uncompromising stand that an elected government should only be answerable to the people. Not satisfied with his judicially aided ouster from power, the powerful military-dominated establishment in Pakistan now wants to ensure his permanent exile from politics and the defeat of the ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), or the PML(N), in the July 25 election.

On July 5, the former Prime Minister was found guilty of corruption by a National Accountability Bureau (NAB) court in Pakistan. He was sentenced in absentia to 10 years in prison and fined $10 million. His daughter and political heir, Maryam Nawaz Sharif, and her husband, Muhammad Safdar, were also found guilty. Maryam was given a jail term of seven years and her husband was given a year in prison. When the sentence was read out, Nawaz Sharif and Maryam were in London, where his wife is in a critical medical condition. The special court had denied the former Prime Minister’s request for the judgment to be delayed until his return to the country.

On the night of July 13, Sharif Maryam were arrested on their return from London and promptly jailed. There was a huge show of support for him on the streets of Lahore despite the best efforts of the authorities to scuttle the gathering of his supporters. Cell-phone services were suspended for the day and barricades put up on main roads to prevent PML-N supporters from converging near the Lahore airport to give their leader a hero’s welcome. The heavy-handed tactics of the security establishment seem to have backfired on it. According to many Pakistani commentators, the public’s disdain for and hostility towards those responsible for the recent acts to curtail free speech and democracy are plainly visible on the streets of big cities like Lahore. The news media, in Pakistan, acting on orders from above, virtually blacked out the scenes of protest staged by tens of thousands of people in Lahore. Many Pakistanis were reminded of the dark days when the country was under outright military rule. July 13 also recorded the country’s worst violence in the election run-up: A candidate and 127 others were killed in a suicide attack in south-western Pakistan.

Ready for a fight

If the powers that be expected the severity of the punishment to dissuade Nawaz Sharif from returning to Pakistan, they made a miscalculation. As soon as the judgment was delivered by the NAB court, Sharif pledged to return and appeal against it in the Supreme Court. The father-daughter duo announced that they would return on July 13. With the elections poised on a knife’s edge, his presence can be critical for the PML-N’s electoral fortunes.

In a video message to the Pakistani people before his return, Sharif said he was going back “to change the fate of the country” despite knowing that a jail cell awaited him. He said the country was “at a critical juncture”. It was not easy for him to leave behind his ailing wife, but he had no alternative as he was determined to play a role in getting rid of the “slavery” the country was under, Sharif said.

At a conference he addressed a day before he left for Pakistan, Sharif came out with all guns blazing against the forces that were out to finish him politically. He said that he had decided to return to Pakistan “despite seeing the bars of the prison in front of my eyes”. He told the media in London that he wished to address his supporters in Lahore after he reached the city. “I ask the people, especially the women, to come out of their homes like tigers and cross all barricades to reach the Lahore airport.” The authorities arrested hundreds of PML-N activists and put up barricades a day before his arrival in Lahore.

“We used to hear about ‘a state within a state’, but now things have gone to an extent that ‘there is now a state above the state’. We will have to change this. July 25 will be a defining moment in the country’s history after August 14, 1947,” Sharif declared before catching his Lahore-bound flight. He said that he wanted the July 25 elections to “be a referendum in which every Pakistani will decide whether they want to be part of this dangerous game or make Pakistan the country Quaid-i-Azam had hoped it would be”. He plans to file an appeal against the verdict from jail and his supporters hope that he will be able to come out on bail to campaign during the last few days before the elections.

On July 8, Sharif's son-in-law, Captain (retired) Muhammed Safdar, surrendered after a massive show of support from PML-N supporters in Rawalpindi. He is contesting for a seat in parliament from the city. The crowds accompanying him were seen chanting “Respect the vote” and “Nawaz Sharif—We are with you”.

Almost a year ago, Sharif was removed from the Prime Minister’s post on the orders of the Supreme Court, which ruled on specious grounds that he was guilty of corruption. Six months later, the same court again passed a judgment that barred him from politics for life. Sharif now has the dubious distinction of never having been able to complete his full term as Prime Minister, with the military having unseated him during two previous terms. He was pressured to resign as Prime Minister by the military during his first stint in office. Midway through his second term, Sharif fell prey to a military coup masterminded by General Pervez Musharraf in 1999. It was only after that Sharif decided to chart an independent political course. Until then, he had been close to the military leadership. He spent some time in a Saudi Arabian prison after the 1999 coup but was eventually bailed out by the Saudi monarchy. After civilian rule was restored in Pakistan, Sharif returned and entered the political fray once again with renewed vigour and a determination to not kowtow to the military establishment.

Why army wants him out

Under his leadership, the PML-N won a resounding victory in the last general election five years ago. After coming to power, Sharif tried to establish more civilian control over key policy issues, including those relating to national security and defence. Pakistan’s powerful military, which has been playing a prodigious and unconstitutional role in the country’s politics since the 1950s, was not pleased. Until last year, the PML-N seemed to be on course to score another victory in the July 2018 elections despite the military intelligence apparatus’ not-so-covert backing for Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) party. The decision to fast-track the corruption cases against Sharif and his immediate family by the NAB, Pakistan’s anti-graft court, seems to have been taken with the July 2018 elections in mind.

The PML-N leadership has been saying that Sharif and his family have been targeted because as Prime Minister he had refused to listen to the army’s diktats and was not afraid to point out its shortcomings, especially in its handling of counter-insurgency efforts. His government criticised the army leadership’s reluctance to take on some terrorist groups that were at one time nurtured by the state. In the first week of July, the Financial Action Task Force, an international counter-terrorism agency, put Pakistan on the “grey list” of countries that have to be subjected to monitoring. Pakistan has been asked to take visible action to curtail money flow to United Nations-designated terror organisations and implement sanctions and other legal actions against designated terrorists in its territory.

Corruption & politics

The corruption case against Sharif gained momentum after the release of the first batch of Panama Papers in 2016. The names of many prominent politicians, businessmen and other personalities from all over the world, including India, figured in the disclosures. The names of other heads of state, including that of the current Argentine President, Mauricio Macri, have also surfaced. But only the government of Pakistan has sought to prosecute, with much zeal and rigour, some of those allegedly involved in hiding their wealth.

The NAB’s main allegation is that Sharif and his family laundered money to buy four upscale flats in a posh neighbourhood of London in 1992. The Supreme Court ruled that Sharif and his family were not able to convincingly explain how they managed to buy these expensive properties and had not provided a money trail. There have been other as yet unproved charges of corruption against the former Prime Minister and his immediate family. The NAB chairman was subjected to widespread ridicule when he ordered an investigation in May this year into charges that Sharif had funnelled $5 billion of ill-gotten wealth into India—of all places. The spurious allegation had first appeared in a Pakistani newspaper.

Not many Pakistanis take the charges against Sharif seriously. Sharif, who entered politics under the patronage of the former military dictator Zia-ul-Haq, comes from a prominent business family. Like many other prominent Pakistanis, the Sharifs had accumulated property abroad. If you throw a stone in some of the posher parts of London, it will likely hit a residential property owned by a wealthy family from the subcontinent. It is not a secret that a lot of money generated through corruption and other means in Pakistan has found its way to safe havens abroad. Nobody is arguing that Sharif and his family were totally above board, but they were no different from the Pakistani political class and the business elite in general. Sharif made most of his fortune when the military was running things.

The families of previous military dictators like Ayub Khan and Zia-ul-Haq, both from modest backgrounds, also became fabulously rich. The powers that be in Pakistan obviously have double standards when dealing with the issue of corruption. Benazir Bhutto and her husband, Asif Zardari, bought a $8 million house when she was Prime Minister. In the second week of July, the Supreme Court summoned Zardari and his sister to answer new charges of corruption that have been raised against them by the country’s Federal Investigation Bureau. The army wants the PPP to align with the PTI. The two parties have been cooperating in parliament. Together they elected an Army favourite, Sadiq Sanjrani, as the Chairman of the Senate. Many poll predictions are pointing to a hung National Assembly. Army pressure has induced many PML-N parliamentarians to defect from the party at the eleventh hour and contest as independents. The former Interior Minister, Chaudhry Nissar, once very close to Nawaz Sharif, is among the defectors, who are apparently co-opted by the military establishment. There are reports in the Pakistani media that the Army is also not too opposed to Shehbaz Sharif, Nawaz Sharif’s younger brother and the current leader of the PML(N). He is viewed as less confrontational.

Reacting to the verdict against him, Nawaz Sharif said, “I am not a dictator who runs away from the courts.” He was referring to Musharraf, who has repeatedly refused to answer summons from Pakistani courts and prefers to remain in exile in the United Arab Emirates. In fact, Musharraf admitted that the former army chief, General Raheel Sharif, facilitated his safe exit from the country by using his influence with the higher judiciary. After retiring from the army, Raheel Sharif announced that he was taking up a new job as head of a Saudi-sponsored fighting force. The federal government was not kept in the loop regarding the job offer.

A compliant judiciary

The army, which has ruled the country for more than half the time since the country gained independence and now controls key sectors of the economy, is loath to cede control over key aspects of national security and foreign policy to civilians. The military’s welfare foundations run thousands of businesses worth billions of dollars. The army is said to control one-third of all heavy manufacturing in the country and up to 7 per cent of its private assets.

Many Pakistani commentators believe that the higher judiciary is acting in tandem with the military establishment. Pakistan’s judiciary has a long history of being close to the military establishment. It has given judicial cover to the many military coups the army has conducted. It played its assigned role in the hanging of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the charismatic former Prime Minster of Pakistan and the founder of the PPP. The current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Mian Saqib Nisar, has been quick to take up cases involving ruling party members but has looked the other way when complaints against forced disappearances and killings by the security forces were brought up. The Supreme Court has not reacted to the open muzzling of the media by the army.

The army’s chief spokesman, Major General Asif Ghafoor, told a news conference in June that “social media users” in the country engaged in “anti state activities” have been identified. He then posted pictures of prominent Pakistani media personalities who were allegedly engaged in these activities. The Committee to Protect Journalists has sharply criticised the military’s not-so-veiled threat against the media. Many journalists have been kidnapped, shot at and even killed in the last couple of years.

The leading newspaper Dawn was blacklisted by the military establishment after it published an interview with Nawaz Sharif in which the former Prime Minister criticised the military. Shopkeepers and newspaper vendors have been told by the military’s security apparatus to stop selling and distributing the newspaper. Pakistan’s largest cable network, Geo TV, has suffered a similar fate for daring to carry stories about the military establishment. Two thirds of the cable operators in the country have complied with instructions to block Geo TV. The Pakistani media now increasingly resort to self-censorship. In a recent ruling, the judiciary ordered that no television channel can air speeches criticising it.

In recent weeks, the judiciary has debarred many prominent PML-N politicians, including Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, who succeeded Nawaz Sharif as Prime Minister, from contesting in the forthcoming elections. It has based its decision on Article 62, which was introduced into the Pakistani Constitution drafted in 1973, when the military was calling the shots, and requires politicians to be “honest and righteous”. This was a ploy to rein in civilian politicians.

The Supreme Court quoted the clause to justify Nawaz Sharif’s removal from the Prime Minister’s post.

Abbasi, who has been barred from contesting from Murree, his home constituency, told a television channel that controversial judicial interventions had turned the forthcoming elections into a joke. He is, however, still registered to contest from a seat in Islamabad. The charge against Abbasi was that he had undervalued the cost of his residential property in Islamabad.

Many Pakistani commentators and politicians have described the ongoing developments as more of a soft military coup. The military, with the help of a compliant judiciary, has ensured that there is no level playing field for the July elections.

Imran Khan, army’s man

The army’s candidate for Prime Minister is Imran Khan, the former cricketer-turned-politician. Khan attributed the PML(N)’s election victory five years ago to rigging and ever since has been single-mindedly leading mass protests and bringing legal cases against Nawaz Sharif. The army leadership silently encouraged these protests and refused to intervene in ensuring law and order when requested to do so by the government. Khan had a major role to play in bringing the Panama Papers case against Sharif.

He has denied that the army is backing him but does not seem eager to openly rubbish the claim among the electorate. He evidently thinks that if the impression of the army backing him persists, he will garner more votes in the populous state of Punjab, which is the bailiwick of the PML-N. He was the only prominent politician to openly welcome the arrest of Nawaz Sharif, going to the extent of describing those supporting him as “donkeys”.

To split the PML-N vote, new religious parties led by right-wing Islamic zealots have been allowed to participate in the elections. They include fringe parties calling for the physical elimination of the Ahmadiyas and the Shias. As the election countdown begins, pollsters predict a tight race.

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