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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 16 July 2018

Nawaz Sharif returns to Pakistan to face jail before elections

Authorities block off parts of Lahore as supporters prepare to welcome former prime minister

Supporters of Nawaz Sharif gather for march to Lahore airport to welcome the former prime minister on his return from London on July 13, 2018. AFP 
Supporters of Nawaz Sharif gather for march to Lahore airport to welcome the former prime minister on his return from London on July 13, 2018. AFP 

Pakistan authorities locked down parts of Lahore on Friday ahead of 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 a general election on July 25.

He has claimed he is being targeted by the military.

"I know that... I will be directly taken to jail," he said in a video released by his party on Friday.

"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."

The video showed Sharif seated on a plane. He left London, where his wife is being treated for cancer, late on Thursday and was expected to arrive in Lahore on Friday evening. He is accompanied by his daughter Mariam, who was sentenced to seven years in prison in the same case.

She shared the video of Sharif's address on her Twitter account, as well as a photo of them during a stopover in Abu Dhabi.

Pakistani authorities said Sharif would be taken to the capital, Islamabad, by helicopter after his arrival.

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

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

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

Containers could be seen blocking some Lahore roads on Friday morning, 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.

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," said Khurram Ehsan, 36.

"We can go beyond our limits for our leader."

Pakistani security personnel patrol outside the Alama Iqbal International Airport in Lahore ahead of the arrival of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif from London on July 13, 2018. AFP
Pakistani security personnel patrol outside the Alama Iqbal International Airport in Lahore ahead of the arrival of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif from London on July 13, 2018. AFP

Pakistan's 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.

The polls would be only the second-ever democratic transfer of power in the South Asian country.

Sharif was the 15th prime minister to be removed before completing a full term in Pakistan's 70-year history - roughly half of it under military rule.

The military remains the most powerful institution in the country, and has been accused in recent months of pressuring the media and politicians in a bid to manipulate the polls against the PML-N.

The armed forces denied the accusations, and say they have "no direct role" in the elections.

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