Police in Pakistan allegedly have rounded up hundreds of supporters of former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, a day before he is due to return to the country with his daughter, political heir Maryam Nawaz, where both face arrest.
Members of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) party say the “massive crackdown” is meant to stop people from organizing a big welcome rally for Sharif in Lahore where he will land Friday with his daughter on a commercial flight.
Authorities in Punjab province, of which Lahore is the capital, say they have not ordered the crackdown, although police are reported as saying they have made an unspecified number of arrests in their bid to avoid unrest in the city before Sharif’s arrival.
An anti-corruption court last Friday sentenced the former prime minister and his daughter to 10 and seven years in prison respectively in absentia for failing to explain how they acquired their expensive properties in London. Sharif is in London, along with his children, caring for his wife who is undergoing treatment for cancer.
Sharif has denounced the verdict as politically motivated and accused a covert military-judiciary alliance of trying to keep him out of politics and undermining the integrity of his PML-N party to enable alliance favorites to win Pakistan’s upcoming national elections on July 25.
PML-N candidates have also alleged Pakistan's intelligence agency, ISI, is pressuring and intimidating them to switch loyalties and contest the polls as independents.
A spokesman for Pakistan’s Independent Election Commission, which oversees the polls, urged candidates Thursday to come forward to register complaints in case they are being forced intimidated.
The army has strongly rejected charges it is meddling in the democratic process, or muzzling the media, to rig the polls in favor of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party led by sports celebrity Imran Khan.
"We don't have a political party. We don't have a loyalty,” the army spokesman said earlier this week. Major-General Asif Ghafoor also dismissed suggestions his institution is forcing Sharif's supporters to switch parties.
He explained the election commission has requested the army assist in organizing a “fair and free” election on July 25 and more than 370,000 troops are being deployed at polling stations around Pakistan to achieve the objective.
Khan, who has been leading legal battles and demanding Sharif’s accountability through street protests, denies his party is colluding with the military.