ISLAMABAD, Sept 10: In a display of power and wiles, the government on Monday managed to send former prime minister Nawaz Sharif back to exile in Saudi Arabia with an unexpected ease, hours after he arrived in Islamabad from London, shattering his dream of receiving a hero’s welcome.
The event was packed with drama from the start of what initially looked like an exciting journey for Mr Sharif with his departure from London’s Heathrow airport overnight to landing at Islamabad airport in the morning and then, 4-1/2 hours later, to apparently being forced to board another flight to Jeddah so he must complete the remaining three years of a 10-year exile.
The affair -- a Pakistani politician getting asylum in Saudi Arabia, being accused of violating the exile commitment and then being forced to be sent back to complete the exile period —happened to be the first of its kind between the two fraternal countries and is likely to raise a lot of legal and political questions in the future.
There would also be a question mark about whether Mr Sharif could bring any challenge to court in Pakistan against what his supporters described as his deportation to Saudi Arabia, after a recent Supreme Court ruling that there could be no legal bar against his returning home.
The government says it was no deportation, but only a resumption of an uncompleted exile after what Information and Broadcasting Minister Mohammad Ali Durrani called a ‘cultural shock’ suffered by the guarantors of the exile deal by Mr Sharif’s attempt to violate it.
Mr Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N and its allies in the newly-formed All Parties Democratic Movement (APDM) had promised a big welcome for the former premier on arrival in Islamabad and had wished to see millions of people to greet him during a planned drive of about 300km on the Grand Trunk Road in a motorcade from Islamabad to Lahore.
But that turned out to be only as a boastful talk as nowhere any big crowd could come out to challenge the heavy deployment of police and paramilitary forces after a crackdown in which most prominent APDM figures and, according to PML-N estimates, thousands of its activists were detained, mainly in the Punjab province.
PML-N workers did not seem to be the stuff willing to show street power while hardened activists of religious parties like the Jamaat-i-Islami and Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam appeared reluctant to take risks after the Saudi government threw its full weight behind the Pakistani government’s argument that Mr Sharif must not return home before completing the 10-year exile he had signed for in December 2000 in exchange for freedom from life imprisonment.Political observers said Monday’s unimpressive show could impact on the future role of the APDM vis-à-vis its hard line against the continuing political dialogue between the government and the Pakistan People’s Party.
TAKEN INTO CUSTODY: Mr Sharif was taken into custody by officials of security agencies before being deported to Saudi Arabia.
The Pakistan International Airline flight PK-786 that brought the former premier along with British parliament member Lord Nazir Ahmed, former PPP leader and former Punjab governor Ghulam Mustafa Khar and a number of media persons touched down at the heavily guarded airport at about 8.40am.
A large number of paramilitary Rangers, Elite Force commandos, Punjab Police and intelligence agencies’ officials had been deployed at the airport which had been put on red-alert since Sunday.
The airport had been virtually sealed off as thousands of security personnel with anti-riot equipment had been deployed on roads leading to the airport to prevent Mr Sharif’s supporters from reaching there.
The airport presented a deserted look as its gates had been locked and blocked by poles. Barbed wire had been laid around the runway and the airport’s boundary walls.
Mobile communication system was jammed at the airport before the PK-786 arrived, and remained so until 1.30pm.
As the Boeing 777 landed and taxied to the airport’s Bay 9, paramilitary troops and Elite Force commandos surrounded the plane and there was a long standoff on board as the former prime minister, given the codename of ‘subject’, refused to hand over his passport to an FIA immigration official.
“Please give me your passport, I will
return it after completing immigration process,” the immigration official was quoted as saying.
But Nawaz refused and the official left the scene.
Later Lord Nazir Ahmed asked Pakistani authorities to remove the Rangers, the Elite Force and the Airport Security Force (ASF) from the plane.
Eventually, Mr Sharif and his entourage agreed to leave the plane and were escorted to the airport’s Rawal Lounge. But the media persons accompanying Mr Sharif were stopped by the security personnel from filming the movements on the apron.
At the lounge, a Rawalpindi police officer, S.P. Tahir Ayub, approached Mr Sharif while another person who identifying himself as a government official, asked him to accompany him as he was having his arrest warrant.
Shortly afterwards, the former prime minister was separated from his associates and transferred to a PIA special plane that later took off for Saudi Arabia, although its destination was not disclosed at the time and an impression was given earlier to reporters that he was being shifted to Attock by helicopter after being arrested.
STREET CLASHES: Clashes had been reported between PML-N supporters and police in different parts of Rawalpindi city. Large number of police had been deployed and barricades set up on roads leading towards the airport to prevent people from reaching the airport.
A number of Mr Sharif’s supporters who arrived on a Gulf Air flight from London started shouting slogans in favour of their leader and against President Musharraf as they appeared out of international arrival lounge.
SHOWDOWN WASN’T THERE: Dozens of PML-N leaders and workers were detained and injured in clashes with police in and around the twin cities on Monday when police prevented them from going to Islamabad airport, but no one got serious injuries.
However, two policemen were rushed to hospital after charged PML-N workers opened fire on police at Attock Bridge on the G.T. Road.
But the violence on the occasion was much below the level it was feared, as was the enthusiasm of the PML-N activists.
Tension has been building up for days with PML-N claiming it would bring a million supporters to the Islamabad airport and the authorities had taken extraordinary security measures to prevent it happening.
Police detained over 2,000 PML-N leaders and workers in the past week. Roads leading to Islamabad and Rawalpindi were blocked miles away overnight by huge containers and by trucks and barbed wire near the Islamabad airport.
But tension and excitement apart, life went on normally in the rest of the two cities, except for schoolchildren who enjoyed an extra holiday on Monday. Businesses and offices remained open.
By 2pm the tension had dissipated. Even the thin crowds of PML-N activists — who did not exceed 100 at any place in the two cities — dispersed after TV channels reported that Mr Sharif had been flown to Saudi Arabia.