Pakistan’s former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, held a rally Wednesday to demonstrate political power, just days after the country’s highest court disqualified him from holding office for concealing his assets.
Critics, however, are questioning an action they say “defies the rule of law” and “demonizes” the Supreme Court.
Sharif left the national capital, Islamabad, for his native eastern city of Lahore in a luxury car, leading a “caravan” of around 800 private and government vehicles. Political aides say thousands of supporters are expected to join the rally on the way.
The “caravan” is expected to travel nearly 300 kilometers along the historic Grand Trunk Road in three days because the 67-year-old deposed leader plans to make stops on the way and address activists of his ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, or PML-N party.
Authorities put in place tight security for the rally, including cell phone signal jammers in their effort to deter subversive acts.
“The bigger a leader is, the bigger the threat is,” Interim Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi told a private television station.
Abbasi, a longtime Sharif associate and party member, was elected the new chief executive of Pakistan shortly after the judicial ruling removed his predecessor from office.
Opposition parties and rights activists have criticized the government for spending taxpayer money to facilitate the rally of a person the Supreme Court has disqualified on corruption charges.
A five-member panel of judges on July 28 unanimously declared Sharif “not honest” for failing to disclose a monthly salary from a Dubai-based company owned by his son. The court also ordered a criminal investigation into his family’s wealth.
Sharif denies wrongdoing and has been voicing his displeasure with the judicial verdict in meetings with party leaders and media. He plans to file a review petition to seek a reversal of his disqualification.
The enormous convoy reached Rawalpindi late Wednesday, where Sharif transferred to a lavish container truck fitted with beds, air conditioning and bathroom facilities.
Addressing an energized group of his party workers after midnight in the garrison city, the ousted prime minister said his disqualification from office was unacceptable to him and the public.
"Is this not an insult to your vote? Tens of millions of people vote to elect their prime minister of the country, but a few people [conspire] to subvert the public mandate. It's happened with me for the third time," Sharif said.
Later in his lengthy speech, Sharif said the court verdict against him violated the people's mandate that had put him in office — his first direct criticism of the judicial verdict against him. Legal experts said it was possible the comments could be interpreted in a way that would put him in contempt of court.
Party leaders have made veiled references indicating the Supreme Court disqualified Sharif at the behest of Pakistan's powerful military establishment. An army spokesman has denied any such activity.
Critics are asking why the ruling party is still treating Sharif as its leader and spending state resources on the rally and other political activities after his disqualification. They cite national election laws that bar politicians from undertaking such activities.
“If the judiciary is held in contempt, then we have nowhere to go," said prominent rights activist Tahira Abdullah. " ... [The Supreme Court] is the court of last resort. If they [judges] are going to be held in contempt by the PML-N and Nawaz Sharif, in particular, then this is a cause for serious alarm.”
She urged Sharif to halt the rally and instead “apologize” to the nation for not being honest while in public office.
Sharif and his political aides suggested his ouster was orchestrated through a conspiracy but have not named any state institution.
Legal experts say they do not see any conspiracy in the judicial verdict.
“There is absolutely no conspiracy. It was pure and simple, a judicial verdict, a court case, which Nawaz Sharif lost,” said Supreme Court attorney Farogh Nasim.
The court case against Sharif stems from the leak of documents known as the “Panama Papers” that listed his two sons and a daughter as holders of offshore bank accounts and posh London property.
The deposed leader is accused of siphoning away money from commissions and kickbacks to overseas accounts during his previous two stints as prime minister in the 1990s.