An Accountability Court in Islamabad on Friday rendered it verdict in the Avenfield corruption reference against ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s family, sentencing the ousted PMLN leader to 10 years’ imprisonment. The judgment also sentences Sharif’s daughter Maryam to 7 years’ imprisonment and her husband, Muhammad Safdar, to 1 year in jail.
The verdict, announced to media by the prosecution’s lawyer, has also announced fines in addition to the jail terms. Nawaz Sharif has been fined GBP8 million, while Maryam has been fined GBP2 million. These funds will be disbursed to the federal government, according to the judgment. In addition, the government has been ordered to confiscate the property. Transparency International said British authorities also had a responsibility to investigate those properties. “If a U.K. investigation concludes that the properties have been bought with corrupt money, then the authorities should move to seize the assets,” the anti-graft charity said in a statement.
Maryam Nawaz Sharif also stands disqualified from contesting the 2018 general elections after the verdict.
The ruling, a potentially significant boost for the main opposition party led by former World Cup cricketer Imran Khan, immediately raised questions over whether Sharif will return to Pakistan from London, where his wife is receiving cancer treatment. Pakistan has no extradition treaty with the U.K.
Judge Mohammad Bashir announced the judgment after earlier rejecting a plea by Sharif and his daughter Maryam to reserve it for seven days to allow them to return home from London, where they are currently visiting Kulsoom Nawaz, who is reportedly in critical condition. Of the accused, only Captain Safdar is currently in Pakistan; Nawaz and his children are all in London with their ailing mother.
Addressing a press conference after the verdict, PMLN President Shahbaz Sharif said his party and the “entire nation” had rejected it. “Nawaz Sharif’s name never even appeared in the Panama reference,” he said, adding that there was no solid evidence to implicate his elder brother. He also questioned NAB’s expedited procedure in the Sharif case, noting that there were cases with far greater alleged corruption that had been pending for years.
Speaking at a press conference in London, Sharif framed the charges against him as a conspiracy by the military, which has ruled Pakistan for roughly half its 70-year history. “This punishment cannot stop me from my struggle,” Sharif said adding he would return and face prison as soon as he is able to have a word with her wife who is on a ventilator. He also urged his supporters to vote for his party at upcoming national elections later this month.
Small protests broke out after the verdict at the court in Islamabad, which was surrounded by heavy security, and in some other cities, including Multan in Punjab, Sharif’s provincial stronghold.
Rival Imran Khan for his part greeted the verdict with jubilation at a campaign rally in Swat. “Today all Pakistanis must offer thanksgiving prayers because today is the beginning of a new Pakistan. Now robbers will not go into assemblies, but to jails,” he told a roaring crowd of thousands.
The Avenfield reference revolves around the purchase of four flats in Avenfield House, Park Lane, London and is one of a number of corruption cases filed by the National Accountability Bureau against Nawaz Sharif and his children following the premier’s ouster from office by the Supreme Court through its Panamagate verdict. In addition to Nawaz, Maryam, and her husband Captain Muhammad Safdar, NAB also nominated Sharif’s sons Hussain and Hassan as co-accused in the corruption references.
According to NAB, the Sharif family had failed to disclose the resources used to purchase the apartments despite claiming they had all been acquired through legitimate sources. A JIT report used to establish NAB’s case had also alleged that the Sharif family had given contradictory reports about when they had purchased the apartments, adding that records showed they had owned them since 1993.
Analysts said the verdict would damage the PMLN’s campaign as the less charismatic Shahbaz seeks to fend off the challenge by Khan’s PTI and other parties. “No matter what the PMLN says, the decision is going to damage their vote bank,” said analyst Rifaat Hussain, adding that he thought it unlikely Sharif would return.
Recent surveys show that up to 22 percent of voters are undecided, he said, and with further serious allegations of corruption against the PMLN leadership there is little chance of Sharif mobilizing the “sympathy factor” after the verdict to attract support. “If Sharif does not come back, his party is over,” added analyst Rasool Bakhsh Rais. “If he comes back, he will have to fight cases and he will be suffering a lot—but in this way he will save his party.”
Sharif, who at times during his premiership appeared to seek a better relationship with India, has repeatedly accused the military of wanton political interference since his ouster. The verdict, coming just weeks before the polls, fueled narratives he was being targeted, said analyst Michael Kugelman. “A culmination of fair justice served or politicized selective justice? Timing alone suggests the answer,” he tweeted.
But Kugelman also suggested the party was becoming a “spent force”: “The walls are closing in, and rapidly.”
Journalists and activists have spoken of pressure by the military to censor positive coverage of the PMLN campaign amid allegations of a “silent coup.” The military has said it does not interfere in the media.
The party has also seen a series of high-profile defections in recent weeks, further weakening its position.