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Nawaz Sharif Returns To Pakistan Despite Imminent Arrest


Quite a showdown we are waiting to see in Pakistan today. The former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter are flying back into that country to be arrested. They're expected to be arrested right there on tarmac when they arrive. They are being arrested for their involvement in a corruption scandal surrounding the ownership of upscale apartments in London. Thousands of Pakistanis are expected to turn out at the airport to protest this arrest. They say there is a conspiracy against Sharif and his party. NPR's Diaa Hadid is in Lahore, the city where Sharif is expected to be landing. Good morning, Diaa.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So why in the world is a former prime minister flying back into his country knowing that he is going to be taken by authorities right when he gets there?

HADID: Right. I think the former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, and his daughter, Maryam - she's his political heir - have decided that this is their best way to rally forces for the elections. There's meant to be elections in Pakistan in the next two weeks. And this is being seen as a rallying cry. They're hoping to whip up anger and sympathy for the Sharifs and their party. I mean, Maryam is live-tweeting her journey back to Pakistan. And her father, Nawaz...

GREENE: She's live-tweeting the trip back there? My God.

HADID: ...And her father's held a - quite a surreal press conference in the Abu Dhabi terminal where he's currently waiting for his flight.

GREENE: OK, so they really are playing up the drama. And I suppose the hope is that there's this big show of support for them beginning at that airport. Is that likely to happen? What is the scene there at this point?

HADID: So the protesters are unlikely to get to the airport. There's - certainly the party has called out for its loyalists and supporters to come to Lahore and march through the city as a show of force, to show the people they accuse of cracking down on Nawaz Sharif and his party that they can't be stopped. But there's about 2,000 paramilitary police surrounding the airport. And there's enormous trucks and lorries that are now lining the streets of the protest route. And they're going to be stopping protesters as they try advance forward. We don't expect anyone to reach the airport. But protesters are at least hoping they'll be out together in Lahore to show their numbers.

GREENE: And, Diaa, for those of us who don't follow Pakistani politics all that closely, can you sort of fit what's happening today into the larger narrative?

HADID: Right, so there's elections coming up in two weeks' time. And there's a fair amount of supporters of Sharif's party - liberals, newspaper editorials - who've increasingly been saying that there seems to be an attempt by the military and the judiciary to curb Nawaz Sharif's popularity and his party's chances at the elections. And this is why we're seeing these really angry protests today.

And we've seen, in the past few weeks, things that would indicate some sort of crackdown. There's been arrests of local journalists and a crackdown on local media that's sympathetic to Sharif. We've seen dozens of party workers being arrested, many of them overnight. And some of the party's own candidates quit at the last minute. And at least one has alleged he quit because of pressure to do so.

And then we had the timing of the sentencing, which happened last Friday, when Sharif was sentenced to 10 years jail. And his daughter was sentenced to seven years jail. This is a country with a really fragile democracy. For about half of its 70 years, it was ruled by military dictatorships, so many people in Pakistan are really sensitive to the idea that their elections aren't free and fair.

GREENE: OK. And so Sharif and his supporters are trying to use that sensitivity to benefit their party and give their party the best chance of winning here?

HADID: Absolutely. It's become their rallying cry.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Diaa Hadid reporting from Lahore, Pakistan, where we're expecting the arrival of the former prime minister and his daughter, who will be arrested, we expect, as soon as they arrive. Diaa, thanks.

HADID: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.