Imran-Nawaz battle puts UK in tight spot

Updated 22 Nov 2020

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This combination file photo shows Prime Minister Imran Khan and former premier Nawaz Sharif. — Photo courtesy agencies
This combination file photo shows Prime Minister Imran Khan and former premier Nawaz Sharif. — Photo courtesy agencies

THE United Kingdom government is faced with a difficult choice as it plays sheriff in the battle between Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif: should it side with an incumbent prime minister who is desperate to secure deportation orders for a former premier whose party is one of the largest political forces in Pakistan?

Senior officials in Pakistan are using both diplomatic and non-diplomatic avenues to convey their demand to British authorities that Nawaz be sent back. A highly placed source in the UK, who is not authorised to speak on this matter, told Dawn that a top Pakistani official met his British counterpart in October to convey that Nawaz is “no longer a soft issue” between the UK and Pakistan and a failure to deport him could result in strained ties between the countries. It is unclear how the message was received by Downing Street and the Home Office, where the case for Nawaz’s leave to remain will be decided.

Top government officials, too, are urging the UK to take action on this issue. Prime Minister Imran Khan last month said he would contact British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to discuss his deportation and his accountability adviser Shahzad Akbar wrote a letter to Home Secretary Priti Patel on October 5 urging her to deport the former prime minister whom he said is “responsible for pillaging the state”.

All eyes on British Home Office

Separately, there are reports that the Pakistan government has denied flights carrying deportees from the UK allegedly because of the lack of success on the Nawaz issue.

Akbar denied this and told a newspaper the government is seeking the deportation of ex-PM “on principle” but it is not linked to any other bilateral issue between the two countries.

For the UK government, one option could be to grant a limited period to Nawaz to remain legally in the UK — which appears to be the singular way it can avoid offending both Nawaz and the current Pakistani regime. This would give the PML-N leader a chance to challenge the Home Office decision and also consider alternative options. Since 2015, the Home Office has been able to inform someone they are liable to removal, and then remove that person at any given point during a three-month removal window.

While the government of Pakistan is using the word “deportation”, it is unlikely the Home Office will take such an extreme step. Deportation is the enforced removal of someone who has either overstayed their leave or where the Home Office finds their removal is “for the public good”, which can include an individual who has a criminal conviction in the UK or overseas.

Deportation is an extreme step, as it means being forced to leave the UK and being unable to return for at least 10 years.

In Nawaz’s case, the government of Pakistan is hoping to persuade UK authorities to bring about a “forced removal”, sometimes called “administrative removal”– a scenario in which the Home Office enforces an individual’s removal from the UK if they don’t have leave to remain i.e. if their application has been declined or if their leave to remain has expired.

There is no doubt that the Nawaz case has put the UK government in a tight spot. As it considers the Pakistan government’s demand, it is also aware of the context in which Nawaz was granted leave as well as the political environment that exists in Pakistan.

Here, public statements such as those made by PM Khan in DC in July 2019 when he vowed to “remove the air conditioner from Nawaz’s jail cell” may be used to undermine the veracity of the government’s corruption case against him. Most recently, Khan told a charged crowd: “You [Sharif] will be kept in a regular jail, not a VIP jail … You come back and I’ll see how we keep you” – another statement which may be brought to the attention of the Home Office to build a case for political persecution. It is also important to note that Nawaz has been booked in a sedition case that carries the death penalty.

International law places obligations on the UK when deporting individuals to countries where they may face a real risk of torture.

A source in the PML-N indicated an appeal would be a serious possibility if Nawaz’s leave to remain is denied. “If visa extension is refused, he has a right to appeal [review]. We will appeal because of his health and comorbidities. If God forbid he is exposed to Covid this could be fatal. If the authorities in Pakistan are doing this to shut him [Nawaz] up, we will not hold back.”

While the Nawaz case is exceptional in that it involves a major political personality, one reality is that it has come to the Home Office at a time when it is under fire at home for being a haven for foreign nationals accused of corruption. Journalists and rights groups in the last few years have criticised the policies of the British government, which they say has made the UK “a safe haven for corrupt wealth”. Transparency International had called for the British government to launch an investigation into Nawaz’s London properties in 2018 when he was convicted in the Avenfield case and subsequently sentenced for 10 years.

UK-based lawyer and immigration law expert Mohammad Amjad said the Home Secretary “certainly has the power to deport Nawaz Sharif”, however the question of whether Ms Patel will use that power boils down to political will.

“The core issue is whether or not there is the political will [in the Home Office] to utilize that power,” he said while speaking to Dawn. “The UK government will do what they feel is appropriate according to their own interests. If it doesn’t serve their interests to keep him in the UK, they may act on the Pakistan government’s request.”

He added that while the UK has deported foreign nationals with criminal records in the past, he was not aware of the UK government using its removal powers against a significant politician.

Asked if there is a parallel here with the Altaf Hussain case, in which some believe the UK government had a soft approach owing to political interests, Amjad said: “I think the Altaf Hussain issue is different as he was a citizen — although there are now powers in place to strip even a UK citizen off his nationality. The question really boils down to this: Does the UK think he [Nawaz] is still a horse in the race?”

While the Pakistan government is consulting a handful of lawyers on this issue, the son of Nawaz Sharif, Hussain Nawaz, told Dawn that his father was legally represented by “one of the best firms in London, which includes the best barristers and solicitors”.

“Whatever happens, we have faith that the British government will do the fair thing,” he said, without offering further details on the matter.

Published in Dawn, November 22nd, 2020