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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Pakistan court issues arrest warrants for ex-PM Sharif

The warrants are related to two cases of alleged corruption

Former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif, second from left, leaves the office of the Joint Investigation Team in Islamabad on June 15, 2017. The team was set up by Pakistan's supreme court to investigate corruption allegations that surfaced following the Panama Papers leak. BK Bangash / AP
Former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif, second from left, leaves the office of the Joint Investigation Team in Islamabad on June 15, 2017. The team was set up by Pakistan's supreme court to investigate corruption allegations that surfaced following the Panama Papers leak. BK Bangash / AP

A Pakistani court on Thursday issued arrest warrants for ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif, piling more pressure on his ruling party as it seeks a way forward ahead of next year's general election.

Mr Sharif's defence lawyer, Zafir Khan, said Pakistan's accountability court issued bailable warrants for the former leader in two cases of alleged corruption on Thursday.

In late July, the supreme court made Mr Sharif the 15th prime minister in Pakistan's 70-year history to be ousted before completing a full term, following a corruption investigation against him.

It also barred him from holding political office, effectively taking him out of the running ahead of general elections due to be held by the end of 2018. Some analysts have already warned the party could lose seats in the vote.

The claims against the prime minister stemmed from the Panama Papers leak last year, which sparked a media frenzy over the luxurious lifestyles and high-end London property portfolio owned by his family.

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Mr Sharif had been due to return to Pakistan from London, where his wife, Kalsum, is undergoing cancer treatment, but instead flew to Jeddah several days ago, according to local media.

He has not returned to Pakistan since he was indicted in the corruption allegations earlier this month, despite reports he would do so.

The next hearing is scheduled for November 3, his lawyer said.

Mr Sharif's eponymous ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) has doggedly stuck behind their leader since he was ousted by the supreme court in July.

But as the legal pressure builds cracks are beginning to appear in their unity, with some members calling for his younger brother Shahbaz, chief minister of the Sharif family's power base of Punjab province, to take control of the party.

Federal minister for inter-provincial coordination, Riaz Pirzada, became the most high profile voice of dissent when he called last week for Shahbaz to take over.

"We don't object to Nawaz's leadership but we are concerned how the party will win the next elections," Mr Pirzada told Pakistan broadcaster Geo News earlier this week.

In the days after his ouster, Mr Sharif swiftly named a replacement, current prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, and designated Shahbaz his eventual successor.

However, there has been no move towards securing a federal seat for the chief provincial minister, which would allow him to take over the premiership and secure the Sharif dynasty.

Such a move would then open up elections for the leadership of Punjab, which some observers have suggested the party cannot afford to risk, despite its influence there.

Pakistan's most populous and wealthiest province, Punjab and the parliamentary seats it can deliver are seen as vital to the PML-N's grip on power.

Instead, Mr Sharif fielded his wife, Kalsum, in a by-election to fill his old seat in Lahore in September.

She won the vote, seen as a key test of the PML-N's popularity after Mr Sharif's ousting and ahead of the election, but the party's soul-searching continues as the debate over its leadership spills into local media.

"There is a very visible split in the party, which has clearly been divided into two groups" behind each brother, said political analyst Rasul Bukhsh Raees.

Nawaz Sharif has faced, and come back from, similar challenges in the past.

In 1993 he was sacked from his first term as premier for corruption, while in 1999 he was sentenced to life in prison after his second term in office ended with a military putsch.

Following the coup he was allowed to go into exile in Saudi Arabia, returning in 2007 before becoming prime minister for a third time in 2013.

Analysts have said his chances of a third comeback may depend on his ability to convince voters he is a victim of an unjust campaign by the powerful military to undermine him.