By Salman Masood
Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was convicted and sentenced to prison in absentia by a Pakistani anticorruption court on Friday, in a verdict that is likely to further disrupt an already chaotic campaign for national elections this month.
The sentence, 10 years in prison and a fine of 8 million pounds, or $10.6 million, came almost a year after Pakistan’s Supreme Court removed Mr. Sharif from office and less than five months after the court barred him from holding office for life. The case stemmed from the so-called Panama Papers leak that disclosed expensive and undeclared property owned by the Sharif family in London.
The verdict marked a further fall for Mr. Sharif, who has been Pakistan’s prime minister three times but never completed a term.
He has been a towering figure in modern Pakistani politics who now stands as an exemplar of two of the country’s most central issues: as a staunch defender of civilian governance amid military manipulation, and as a symbol of a venal Pakistani elite that has alienated much of the public.
From the start of Mr. Sharif’s legal troubles in 2016, his supporters have accused the country’s powerful military establishment of pressing the case against Mr. Sharif, whose first term ended in resignation under military pressure and whose second was cut short by an army coup.
Mr. Sharif’s daughter Maryam Nawaz Sharif and her husband, Muhammad Safdar, were also convicted, with Ms. Sharif sentenced to seven years in prison and a fine of 2 million pounds and Mr. Safdar sentenced to one year in prison. The court also ordered the seizure of the Sharif family’s four apartments at Avenfield House, a luxury building next to Hyde Park in London.
The Pakistani news media reported that Mr. Sharif and his daughter were in those apartments as they listened to the verdict.
Mr. Sharif, Ms. Sharif and Mr. Safdar have all denied any wrongdoing in the corruption case. But in the ruling that ousted Mr. Sharif from office last year, the Supreme Court concluded that he and his family members could not adequately explain how they were able to afford the expensive London apartments and that they failed to provide a money trail.
Now, the verdict and sentence, announced by Muhammad Bashir, a justice on the accountability court in Islamabad, could see them imprisoned. But at least on Friday, it appeared unlikely that either Mr. Sharif or his daughter would appear in Pakistan to go to jail. The family is in London tending to Mr. Sharif’s ailing wife, Kulsoom Nawaz Sharif. She has cancer and has been on a ventilator, according to officials with Mr. Sharif’s political party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz. His request that the verdict be delayed for at least one week was rejected by the judge earlier on Friday.
Mr. Sharif, speaking to reporters in London late Friday, said he planned to return to Pakistan and was willing to go to prison in his effort to free Pakistanis “of the slavery imposed on them by some generals and judges,” He did not say when he would return. Members of the Sharif family had said before the verdict that they would appeal any convictions, but they are unlikely to get relief from the higher courts.
The conviction also bars Maryam Sharif from contesting the July 25 elections, in a blow to Mr. Sharif’s ambitions for his daughter to play a leading role in national and party politics. Ms. Sharif has emerged in recent months as a powerful voice for civilian rule and against the military’s interference in politics.
Mr. Safdar, the son-in-law, is in Pakistan but was not in court when the verdict was announced. He is campaigning in his hometown of Mansehra in the country’s northwestern Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province and was expected to hold a news conference later on Friday. Mr. Sharif and his daughter have said that they are not afraid to go to jail, but it remains to be seen whether they will return to Pakistan before the elections. Political opponents have already said that the Sharif family is in an unannounced exile.
Their absence is bound to further worsen the fortunes of their party, known by the abbreviation PML-N.
Several other senior figures in the party have also been barred by courts from running in the July 25 elections. Others have defected to other parties or simply left, though the PML-N leadership says that those desertions have come under pressure from the military.
Outside the party’s offices in Lahore, a handful of pro-Shairf protesters gathered Friday evening.
“We don’t accept the court’s decision, but it will make our election campaign even stronger,” said Muhammad Ammar Ali, 32.
Military officials have denied taking any role in manipulating the upcoming elections. But at the same time, stark evidence of military pressure on the news media, the PML-N and an ethnic Pashtun rights and political movement has led rights advocates and others to describe the campaign season as more of a soft military coup than a democratic election.
“The crackdown has been very ham-fisted and heavy-handed,” said Ahmed Rasheed, a foreign policy analyst and author. “Yes, the PML-N is corrupt, but they don’t deserve to be harassed in elections like this.”
Mr. Rasheed called the PML-N and other family-run political parties “banana republics” but said the “key tragedy” in Pakistan was the military’s intervention in politics. Despite the actions against it, the PML-N retains strong support in Punjab, the country’s most populous and prosperous province. Results in Punjab are often critical for a party’s national electoral fortunes.
Shehbaz Sharif, the younger brother of Mr. Sharif and former chief minister of Punjab, is now the party’s standard-bearer, and he presented the party’s agenda on Thursday at the party secretariat in Lahore. He said the party would focus on economic development and social initiatives.
But in a fraught election season, the younger Sharif has seemed to lack some of the popular appeal of his brother, even as the party has come under heavy pressure.