UPDATES WITH STATEMENT BY FORMER PM NAWAZ SHARIF, HAMZA SHEHBAZ
By Aamir Latif
KARACHI, Pakistan (AA) – Pakistan’s main opposition leader and three-time chief minister of the country’s largest Punjab province was arrested on Friday by anti-corruption authorities, officials confirmed.
Shehbaz Sharif, the younger brother of three-time Premier Nawaz Sharif, was taken into custody by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) in the northeastern city of Lahore in connection with a housing scam, a NAB spokesman told reporters.
Shehbaz, also head of the main opposition Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) party, is accused of granting illegal contracts to his favorites for the construction of low-cost houses for the poor and middle-class in Punjab — the country’s political power base, and a stronghold of the PML(N).
He will appear in an accountability court on Saturday, the NAB said.
Shehbaz’s arrest came days after the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) warned PML(N) leaders of their arrests and other legal actions.
Quoting unnamed officials, local broadcaster Geo TV reported that Shehbaz had been summoned by NAB officials for investigation but was taken into custody after he allegedly was unable to “satisfy” a three-member investigation team.
Shehbaz's elder Nawaz Sharif has already been disqualified for life, and given a 10-year jail term in a corruption case. However, Islamabad's High Court last month suspended the jail term, and granted bail to the former three-time premier.
Reacting to the arrest, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry told reporters in the capital Islamabad: “This is the first step. You will see more arrests in the future with the passage of the accountability process.”
– 'Political victimization'
The PML(N), for its part, rebutted the corruption allegations, calling the arrest “political vendetta” — a contention also supported by several local media outlets and independent analysts.
In a statement, the three-time premier said the PTI government was responsible for the vendetta.
He warned that those who have unleashed this reign of victimization against their political opponents should be ready for the same.
"You better go to that length which you can bear when you are in opposition," Sharif was quoted as saying by Geo News, a local broadcaster.
Hamza Shehbaz, son of Shehbaz Sharif and opposition leader in Punjab assembly, dubbed his father's arrest as a result of "NAB-Niazi nexus", in a reference to Prime Minister Imran Khan whose surname is Niazi.
Established by former military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf in 2000, the NAB has often been accused of targeting anti-government politicians.
A rare meeting last month between Prime Minister Imran Khan and NAB Chairman Javed Iqbal also raised eyebrows as the first-time premier is also facing an NAB probe over allegedly illegal use of government helicopters.
“The government is taking such steps to rig the forthcoming by-elections,” Rana Sanaullah, a senior parliamentarian and PML(N) leader, told reporters.
“There is neither merit nor any proof in this case. This is mere political victimization,” he said.
The Center-left Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) also condemned Shehbaz’s arrest.
“There should be a court trial instead of media trial. The fashion in which Shehbaz has been arrested is tantamount to humiliating the entire parliament,” said Khursheed Shah, a PPP parliamentarian and former opposition leader.
Several senior bureaucrats have already been arrested by the NAB in the case.