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Interview: Shahbaz Sharif on His Brother

7 minute read
Aryn Baker/Islamabad

After Pakistan’s Supreme Court sanctioned his return, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif flew back to his country on board a Pakistan International Airways plane only to be unceremoniously deported. TIME spoke to his brother and key political collaborator Shahbaz, who is based in London. Excerpts:

TIME: When was the last time you spoke to your brother?
[On Monday evening] he told me very clearly, “Shahbaz, I was shaken. They had a very clever plan, that I would be arrested, taken to the arrivals lounge. I told them from London that I was prepared to face any of these concocted charges against me, that I was prepared to go to prison, to go anywhere they wanted to take me in Pakistan. I don’t mind that.” And then they whisked him away from the lounge to the tarmac where there was a plane, and they said we are going to take you to a far flung jail in the south of Pakistan, and he thought, “they are taking me to Karachi. OK fine.” But after an hour and a half after the plane did not descend, he was a little concerned. “We haven’t stopped,” he asked. “What is happening, why haven’t we landed?” And then he was told of the abduction plan, and that he was being taken to Jeddah. And he was very shell shocked — “Oh my god, can they do this to me in broad daylight? Can they take me out like this, lying to my face? In front of dozens of my party workers?” He [told me], “look Shahbaz, I never expected that they would defy a clear verdict of the supreme court, that they would once again subvert the constitution, they would commit contempt of court, they would commit a crime like smuggling me out of Pakistan. You are going to have to pull up and leave no stone unturned to ensure that the courts of law pursue this fight, and that the fight extends to the streets of Pakistan.”

What’s next?
[President Pervez Musharraf] has fired the pistol shot for an open revolt. This will not be just a run up in the streets, but will have implications for times to come. If he thinks that he can unconstitutionally and unlawfully abduct Nawaz Sharif and send him back to Jeddah [in Saudi Arabia], well, there are very serious ramifications which we will watch unfold in the coming days and weeks. It cannot happen that he can sidestep a political contest for presidential elections by cutting a deal with Benazir Bhutto, and sideline Nawaz Sharif and other parties.
If Musharraf and his cronies were concerned with Sharif’s return, well, what Musharraf has done will not stop the end game, it will only lead to his removal from power. He should have allowed Pakistan to move on and maybe history would have been kind to him. I think a road map could have been chopped out where the country wouldn’t have been plunged into a deep and serious crisis, but unfortunately he doesn’t seem to understand this.

Why was there such a crackdown on the welcoming rally?
Yes, thousands of our workers have been arrested, their houses have been ransacked, raided during the night and the early hours of the morning. And when Nawaz Sharif was leaving for Islamabad all roads leading to the capital were totally blocked and choked.
Musharraf has said that Sharif had no popular support, but if that was the case then he would have let him come openly. He knew that giving an open arrival to Nawaz Sharif would have proved how unpopular he [Musharraf] was, so he stopped it. I think that all of this together adds to Musharraf’s woes and he won’t be able to get any respite from it.

Your party leadership has been thrown in jail, and members are scared to come out into the streets. How will you organize a protest?
The entire cream of our party leadership has been detained in prison — Rawalpindi, Lahore, all over Punjab and Pakistan. So obviously our workers, our people will have to put our heads together and very shortly we will make a protest march, demonstrations. Today those that did not go to jail are meeting to deliberate how to move forward.

Kulsoom Nawaz, Sharif’s wife, has said that she will return to Pakistan to lead the fight. Is she not worried about the same treatment as her husband?
Oh no, she is a very brave woman. Kulsoom is a very determined woman and she will return with a bang. She is not worried about anything. It is Musharraf who should be worried.

I understand your brother is prevented from any political activity in exile. How far does this extend?
We have not heard from [him] that he will be able to do any political activity. Of course his family is allowed to contact him. He is very angry. He told me with a heavy heart that “Musharraf forced me to do what I never wanted to do again, which was to send me out.”

And you will continue the fight from London?
My brother has asked me to hold the fort here. I was to accompany him to Islamabad, but at the 11th hour he asked me to cancel my trip. I was about to board his plane to go with him, and though I was very insistent to join him, he was also insistent that I should not come. Now I will lead the fight for his release from here.

If the U.S. continues to back the deal between Musharraf and Bhutto, what is your response?
This deal is a very awkward thing for Musharraf and the United States and for all parties. It will tarnish the reputation of America. Musharraf has just gone against the constitution and displayed contempt of court and has shown that he has no respect for the rule of law. American intervention in respect to a deal is going to tarnish the U.S. It won’t work, it won’t work at all.

America has called Musharraf its best ally in the war on terror. Do you think Nawaz Sharif would be better?
I wouldn’t call it America’s war on terror. Terrorism is our own fight as well, and if it coincides with the American agenda or the international agenda well that’s fine. But we feel, and I am quite convinced, that without fighting terrorism Pakistan cannot prosper. Pakistan can never become a forward-looking progressive nation. I think by our acts we have demonstrated this commitment. When Nawaz Sharif was Prime Minister in 1997, we were combating a different kind of terrorism at that time. It was what you call sectarian terrorism, and 9/11 had not happened. And we were tackling that with success and dedication. As you know there was a bomb planted at Nawaz Sharif’s house a little out of Lahore and it was very lucky that it exploded half an hour before he got in range. So what I am saying is that Nawaz Sharif has been dealing with terrorism with conviction. Musharraf, to the contrary — after 9/11 he was fighting terrorism out of compulsion. That’s the difference.
This issue of terrorism is as much an issue for Pakistan as it is a Western issue. But somehow, because of this strained environment, because of his relationship with the U.S., people have come to believe that Musharraf is only an American stooge supporting an American agenda, which is not correct. Extremism and terrorism is Pakistan’s problem, and Pakistan’s job to combat. It is on our agenda, and we must fight it, but fight it differently than how we have been doing.

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