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Pakistan ex-PM Sharif sentenced to 10 years for corruption
[ISLAMABAD] Pakistan's former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was sentenced in absentia to 10 years in prison by a corruption court in Islamabad Friday, lawyers said, dealing a serious blow to his party's troubled campaign ahead of July 25 elections.
The verdict, a potentially significant boost for the main opposition party led by former World Cup cricketer Imran Khan, immediately raised questions over whether Mr Sharif will return to Pakistan from London, where his wife is receiving cancer treatment.
Sharif was ousted from his third term as prime minister by the Supreme Court last year following a corruption investigation and banned from politics for life, but remains a powerful symbol for his ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz.
He has framed the charges against him as a conspiracy by the powerful military, which has ruled Pakistan for roughly half its 70-year history.
Small protests quickly broke out after the verdict at the court in Islamabad, which was surrounded by heavy security, and in some other Pakistani cities including Multan in Punjab, the Sharif dynasty's provincial stronghold.
"We reject this decision," his brother Shahbaz Sharif, who is leading the PML-N into Pakistan's second ever democratic transition of power, told a televised press conference in Lahore shortly after the verdict.
"It is based on injustices. This decision will be written in black words in history," he said.
Mr Khan for his part greeted news of the verdict with jubilation at a campaign rally in the Swat valley in Pakistan's northwest.
"Today all Pakistanis must offer thanksgiving prayers because today is the beginning of a new Pakistan. Now robbers will not go into assemblies, but to jails," he told a roaring crowd of thousands.
Sharif was also given an eight million pound ($10 million) fine over the purchase of high-end properties in London, defence lawyer Mohammad Aurangzeb told AFP.
Prosecution lawyer Sardar Muzaffar Abbas said that the court had ordered the properties, in London's exclusive Mayfair, be confiscated by the federal government.
Analysts said the verdict would damage the PML-N's campaign, as the less charismatic Shahbaz seeks to fend off the challenge by Khan's Movement for Justice and other parties.
"No matter what the PML-N says, the decision is going to damage their vote bank," analyst Rifaat Hussain told AFP, adding that he thought it unlikely Sharif would return.
Recent surveys show that up to 22 per cent of Pakistani voters are undecided ahead of July 25, he said, and with further serious allegations of corruption against the PML-N leadership there is little chance of Sharif mobilising the "sympathy factor" after the verdict to draw those voters in.
The ruling has put Sharif in a "difficult position", agreed analyst Rasool Bukhsh Rais.
"If Sharif does not come back, his party is over. If he comes back, he will have to fight cases and he will be suffering a lot - but in this way he will save his party."
Sharif, who at times during his premiership appeared to seek a better relationship with Pakistan's arch-enemy India, has since his ouster repeatedly accused the military of wanton political interference.
Journalists and activists have spoken of pressure by the military to censor positive coverage of the PML-N campaign amid allegations of a "silent coup". The military has said it does not interfere in the media.
The party has also seen a series of high-profile defections in the weeks leading up to the campaign that have helped fuel its allegations it is being targeted by the security establishment.
The corruption controversy erupted with the publication in 2016 of 11.5 million secret documents from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca documenting the offshore dealings of many of the world's rich and powerful.
Three of Sharif's four children - Maryam, his presumptive political heir, and his sons Hasan and Hussein - were implicated in the papers.
On Friday the court also sentenced Maryam to seven years in prison.
Sharif has faced - and come back from - similar challenges in the past.
In 1993 he was sacked from his first term as premier for corruption, while in 1999 he was sentenced to life in prison after his second term in office ended with a military coup.
Following the coup he was allowed to go into exile in Saudi Arabia, returning in 2007 before becoming prime minister for a third time in 2013.