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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 October 2018

Pakistan court orders release of ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif

High Court suspends prison sentences for former Pakistani leader and his daughter

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif addresses his Pakistan Muslim League supporters during a party general council meeting in Islamabad, Pakistan. AP
Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif addresses his Pakistan Muslim League supporters during a party general council meeting in Islamabad, Pakistan. AP

The jailed former prime minister of Pakistan has been freed from prison after a High Court dramatically suspended his sentence for corruption.

Nawaz Sharif was granted bail on Wednesday along with his daughter Maryam pending an appeal against their July conviction by an anti-graft tribunal.

The decision was hailed by his supporters who claim he was the victim of politically-motivated collusion between the judiciary and powerful security establishment to remove him from office.

The three-time prime minister was ousted from office and then prosecuted after the 2016 Panama Papers leak linked his family to offshore companies and four luxury flats in London's Park Lane.

He was given a 10-year sentence, his daughter seven years and his son-in-law two. The court said he had been unable to explain how he got the money to buy the expensive properties while his daughter had tried to conceal their ownership. Mr Sharif said the flats belonged to his sons.

While the pair still face appeal and a possible return to jail, the court appeared critical of the prosecution case.

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"The prosecution has failed to show the properties belong to Nawaz Sharif. It also failed to prove how was Maryam Nawaz sentenced under the same charge sheet which convicted Nawaz Sharif," Justice Athar Minallah told Islamabad High Court.

Analysts suggested that even the temporary release of Mr Sharif could galvanise his party, the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) after it was swept aside at the July general election by Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party.

"Today the court has suspended the decision that was based on revenge," former PML-N minister Ahsan Iqbal told reporters.

"This trial is important because even a blind person in Pakistan will see that there was neither law nor constitution in the decision and it was just pre-poll rigging to pave the way for Imran Khan to win elections," he said.

The PML-N claimed it was the victim of a concerted campaign to weaken it in advance of the election as the powerful military took revenge for Mr Sharif challenging generals on their alleged support of militant proxies and India policy. The army has denied meddling in the election.

Supporters of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif react as they celebrate following the court's decision in Peshawar, Pakistan. Reuters 
Supporters of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif react as they celebrate following the court's decision in Peshawar, Pakistan. Reuters 

Mr Sharif was convicted in his absence in July while at wife's bedside in London. He returned days before the election to receive his sentence and was in prison when his wife, Kulsoom Nawaz died last week.

"Justice has been served, and I congratulate Nawaz Sharif's supporters," former Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif, a Sharif ally, said outside the courtroom as supporters chanted pro-Sharif slogans.

Gen Talat Masood, a political commentator, said even if the decision is reversed, the release went towards vindicating the PML-N's argument. He said it was also a victory for Pakistan's independent judiciary.

The PML-N has been under the control of Mr Sharif's younger brother, Shahbaz, who is widely considered to lack his sibling's political charisma.

Gen Masood said: “It will put life into the opposition. They were completely demoralised in a way.”

Mr Sharif remains a political heavyweight in Pakistan, particularly in the populous province of Punjab, while his daughter is seen as his likely successor.

The court's decision came as the prime minister was making his first overseas visit, with trips to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Mr Khan had campaigned for an investigation into Mr Sharif's finances from the moment the Panama Papers were leaked. Mr Sharif came to symbolise the venal political elite which Mr Khan sought to remove as he gained widespread support with his populist anti-corruption promises.

Senator Javed Faisal, a close aide of Mr Khan, stressed the court had only suspended the sentences, but had not acquitted the Sharifs.

"Their supporters should not celebrate so much as they will likely have to go again to Adiala prison," he said.

"The Sharif family still has not proven where the billions of rupees came from for their property," said Fawad Chauhdry,

the government's information minister, according to PTI's official Twitter account.

The court also ordered the release of the Mr Sharif, his and son-in-law Mohammad Safdar, once they had each posted a bond of half a million rupees, or about $4,000.

The prosecutors from Pakistan's anti-corruption body, the National Accountability Bureau, said they would appeal Wednesday's ruling and take their case against Mr Sharif to the country's Supreme Court.