Pakistan’s former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was arrested in Lahore airport on Friday as he returned to face a 10-year prison sentence which he claimed was part of a wide-ranging, military-backed conspiracy to deny his party a second term in an election due on 25 July.
Military police boarded Sharif’s flight as it landed from a stop in Abu Dhabi after taking off in London. Paramilitary Rangers linked arms and battled against Sharif’s supporters to escort the 68-year-old off the aircraft, into a waiting car and then across the 200 yards to another small aircraft.
The Rangers also arrested Maryam, his daughter, who on 6 July was sentenced with her father to seven years in the trial over how the family came to own four luxury flats in London’s Park Lane, a story that resurfaced in the 2016 leak of the Panama Papers.
As the political drama unfolded in Lahore, fears of violence also surged ahead of the polls as 132 people were killed by a suicide bomber at a political rally in southwestern Balochistan province.
“Who wants to go to jail?”, Sharif told the Guardian from the Etihad airlines flight on which supporters yelled pro-Sharif slogans while in the air.
“But it is a very small price to pay for my mission, which is to establish the sanctity of the vote in Pakistan.”
The arrests ignited an otherwise lacklustre election campaign beset by allegations that the powerful military was “engineering” the vote to promote the main opposition party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), led by the former cricketer Imran Khan.
The military has denied the allegations.
The National Accountability Bureau (NAB), Pakistan’s anti-graft court, ruled earlier this month that Sharif and his family laundered money in the 1990s to pay for the Park Lane apartments, drawing on allegations that resurfaced in the Panama Papers leak.
Before Sharif’s return, his brother Shahbaz, the former chief minister of Punjab, led tens of thousands of supporters in a welcome rally but the caravan had to negotiate a city turned into a warren of roadblocks.
Police arrested more than 500 Pakistani Muslim League (Nawaz) party (PML-N) workers in the hours before Sharif’s arrival, banned public gatherings of more than five people and cut mobile phone signals across Lahore.
The media regulator banned mentions of “convicted persons”, thwarting local journalists from broadcasting much of Sharif’s response.
“What credibility will the election have if the government is taking such action against our people?,” said Sharif.
“Somebody is forcing the caretaker government to take these actions,” he said, hinting at the role of the so-called “establishment”, whose influence Sharif attempted to limit until he was ousted in a controversial supreme court ruling last July.
A battle with the deep state, which began when the military ousted Sharif in a bloodless coup in 1999, reached its peak this week.
Sharif openly named a general at Pakistan’s intelligence service, ISI, as behind the attempts to push PML-N politicians to join the PTI, splintering the taboo by which civil leaders only refer to the armed forces in vague code; “angels” in the case of intelligence agents.
Sharif planned to appeal against his conviction on landing but analysts doubt he would receive bail before the election.
The leadership hopes that instead his sentence of “rigorous imprisonment” – which could include physical labour – will play to the party’s favour in the elections, turning him into a martyr for civilian supremacy.
Sympathy for Sharif has risen during the illness of his wife, Kulsoom, who is in a coma in a London hospital after treatment for throat cancer. In a parting photograph shared widely on social media, Sharif leans over her sickbed and touches her brow with a gloved hand, while Maryam wipes her eyes.
The latest poll shows that Khan’s party, the PTI, is marginally in front of the PML-N. On Friday, European election monitors were granted permission to deploy across the country.
Friday’s suicide attack – which was claimed by Islamic State – killed Siraj Raisani, who was running for a provincial seat with the newly formed Balochistan Awami party, the provincial home minister, Agha Umar Bungalzai, told AFP.