Fri. Jun 21st, 2024

ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s thrice-elected former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif returned home Saturday on a chartered plane from Dubai, ending four years of self-imposed exile in London as he seeks to win the support of voters in parliamentary elections due in January.

He is expected to face tough competition from the party of former premier and his main rival, Imran Khan, who was ousted in a no-confidence vote in April 2022 and is currently imprisoned after a court convicted and sentenced him to three years in a graft case.

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Sharif has been a fugitive since he failed to appear before a Pakistani court in 2019 following his conviction and sentencing of 10 years in prison on corruption charges. Khan, at the time, allowed him to travel abroad to receive medical treatment after complaining of chest pains. Sharif later prolonged his stay in London, saying his doctors were not allowing him to travel.

Two days ago, a Pakistani federal court granted him several days of protection in graft cases, clearing the way for his return home from self-imposed exile in London. At the Islamabad airport Saturday, legal advisers and senior members of his Pakistan Muslim League party gave him a warm welcome.

He is expected to address a massive homecoming rally in the eastern city of Lahore later Saturday and his return comes as Pakistan experiences deepening political turmoil and one of its worst economic crises.

In Lahore, Sharif’s supporters decorated the city with his photos and party flags. “Today I am going to Pakistan after four years and I am feeling very happy with the grace of Allah,” Sharif told reporters before leaving for Islamabad from Dubai. He had arrived in the United Arab Emirates on Friday from Saudi Arabia after traveling there last week from London.

He said Pakistan’s economy and political situation both declined in recent years, according to multiple videos shared by his Pakistan Muslim League party on X, formerly known as Twitter.

But he added: “As I have said earlier, I leave everything to God.” He said he made more than 150 court appearances after his ouster in 2017.

Thursday’s decision by the Islamabad High Court that allowed for his return was a major boost for Sharif and his party, which is struggling to counter the popularity of Khan who remains the leading opposition figure.

Sharif is also facing multiple legal challenges. In 2020, an anti-graft court in Islamabad issued a warrant for his arrest after he failed to return home. The same court on Thursday suspended that arrest warrant until Oct. 24. Another federal court has granted Sharif bail until Oct. 24, giving him protection from arrest until then.

Last month, Sharif claimed that the country’s former powerful army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa and spy chief Faiz Hameed orchestrated his ouster in 2017. He had troubled relations with the military.

His party became hugely unpopular after Khan’s removal when Nawaz Sharif’s brother Shehbaz Sharif replaced Khan, a former cricketer turned politician.

Shehbaz, whose tenure ended in August, failed to improve the economy, though he saved Pakistan from default. A caretaker government is currently in power and it will hold the vote in January.

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