Nirupama Subramanian

Day of high drama in Islamabad airport as Sharif stays put in plane and then disembarks

PML (N) leaders arrested overnight

Call for protests against deportation

ISLAMABAD: On a day of high drama and rapidly changing events, the former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif landed in the capital, was arrested on corruption charges and suddenly deported to Saudi Arabia, all within five hours on Monday.

Earlier in the morning, police and paramilitary forces prevented Pakistan Muslim League (N) activists from reaching the airport by throwing a security cordon over a five-km radius that sealed all approach roads.

Many PML (N) leaders and those of other parties expected to turn out for Mr. Sharif’s welcome were arrested in overnight swoops on their homes, while the rest were rounded up as they attempted to lead rallies to the airport in the morning. In a few places, the police used teargas and batons to disperse supporters who managed to reach the barricades.

The PML(N) is likely to move a petition in the Supreme Court against Mr. Sharif’s deportation calling it a violation of the court’s August 23 verdict that said citizens have a fundamental right to enter the country and ordered the government to ensure that the Sharif brothers’ return was not hindered in any way.

The party, and its partners in the All-Parties Democracy Movement, have called for a day of protests on Tuesday.

Mr. Sharif made a last-minute change to his plan as he left London on Sunday night. Instead of boarding a Gulf Air flight to arrive here via Muscat as announced by his party, he flew Pakistan International Airlines direct from London to Islamabad, accompanied by some 30 party workers and an equal number of international and Pakistani journalists.

He ordered his brother Shahbaz to stay back in London just as they were about to board the flight at about midnight Pakistan time. Party spokesmen said the decision to leave Shahbaz behind was made for “strategic political reasons.”

When the PIA flight — some said it was chosen for its number 786 that holds religious importance in Islam — touched down at 8.40 a.m., over 100 police commandos surrounded it, while officials boarded it.

Mr. Sharif refused to disembark unless he was given guarantees that he would not be arrested or deported. He also refused to hand over his passport to immigration officials who went on board, and said he would not be separated from the media team accompanying him.

After 90 minutes of negotiations, Mr. Sharif got off the plane and was taken to the VIP Rawal Lounge, where officials and Saudi diplomats asked him to choose between arrest and jail in Pakistan, and deportation to Saudi Arabia. He reportedly chose the former.

Ghulam Mustafa Khar, who was with the Pakistan People’s Party until recently but who switched sides and was among those travelling with Mr. Sharif, came out of the lounge to tell journalists that corruption charges had been read out to the former Prime Minister and he had been taken into custody.

The PML (N) was noticeably relieved at the turn of events, as the arrest could be challenged in the courts and on the streets, and would in any case ensure the continued presence of Mr. Sharif in Pakistan. But it was not to be.

Unconfirmed reports said that Mr. Sharif was first escorted into a waiting helicopter and flown to an undisclosed location, and party workers who had arrived with him dispersed from the airport thinking he was being transported to a jail.

But the helicopter returned after some time.

Mr. Sharif was seen boarding an A 310 which was standing by. Soon the aircraft flew out of Pakistan, and officials on the ground disclosed that the former Prime Minister had been “deported” to Saudi Arabia.

A report from Saudi Arabia later in the day said his plane had landed in Jeddah.

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