A Pakistani court on Friday sentenced ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in absentia to a decade behind bars for corruption.
The sentence deals a significant blow to the country’s ruling party, currently running against the grass-roots movement led by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and hundreds of candidates fielded by parties linked to Islamic terrorist organizations participating in the July 25 general elections.
Khan, the 66-year-old leader of the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party (PTI, or Pakistan Justice Movement) is considered the main political challenger to Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).
The former cricket star “brought the original corruption allegations against Nawaz Sharif to the Supreme Court,” which ultimately ousted the former prime minister in July 2017, the Washington Post reports, adding, “In recent months, numerous Muslim League candidates have defected because of the ongoing turmoil; although most have registered as independents, Khan’s party is expected to benefit.”
The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) court handed down the guilty verdict in absentia against Sharif while the disgraced politician tended to his critically ill wife in London.
Without specifying a date, Sharif vowed to return to Pakistan from London where he is tending to his cancer-ridden wife, Kulsoom, currently in a coma after suffering a heart attack last month.
“As soon as she gains consciousness, and I talk to her, I will go back,” Sharif told reporters in London, according to Reuters. “I will continue my struggle even in the jail.”
The former premier would face arrest upon arrival to Pakistan. Sharif and his daughter have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and vow to appeal the decision, Reuters reports, noting:
The guilty verdict in absentia against Sharif, 68, threatens to end the career of one of Pakistan’s most high-profile politicians of the last four decades, a political survivor who was prime minister three times. Sharif’s daughter, Maryam, widely seen as his chosen political heir, was sentenced to seven years in prison and is disqualified from contesting the elections. Maryam’s husband and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) lawmaker Muhammad Safdar was handed a year in jail.
The NAB court accused Sharif and his family of money laundering and being unable to legitimately show the money trail for the purchase of several luxurious properties in London, mostly in the mid-1990s.
This year’s election has confirmed fears that Muslim extremists linked to jihadi groups would officially enter the political mainstream in Pakistan by allowing various hardline Islamist organizations to field a total of 375 candidates across the country, more than any other party including Sharif’s ruling Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N).
The scandal that surrounded Sharif’s ousting cost his party the support of the military establishment, reportedly backing Khan.
Sharif reportedly accuses the military of being behind what he claims to be a politically motivated judicial witch hunt against him.
“Pakistan’s military, which has ruled the nuclear-armed country for almost half its history, denies involvement in civilian politics,” Reuters notes. “But the military ended Sharif’s second stint in power in 1999 in a bloodless coup.”
Seizing on the 2016 Panama Papers’ revelations that then-PM Sharif’s family had purchased London apartments using offshore companies, Khan threatened street demonstrations to protest corruption, ultimately taking down the premier.
In July 2017, the Supreme Court ousted Sharif for allegedly behind “dishonest” by not reporting a monthly income of $2,723 from a company owned by his son, an accusation that the former PM denies.
While Islamist extremists candidates are rising to prominence during this year’s election, candidates from both Sharif’s PML-N and Khan’s PTI parties “face corruption, criminal, rape, dual nationality, money laundering, extortion, loans/bank defaulting, human smuggling and murder charges in Pakistan,” Geo News reported last month.