Islamabad: Pakistan's deposed premier Nawaz Sharif was on Friday sentenced in absentia to 10 years of rigorous imprisonment by an anti-graft court in one of the three corruption cases against him in the Panama Papers scandal, dealing a huge blow to his party ahead of the elections on July 25.
Sharif's 44-year-old daughter and co-accused Maryam was given seven years for abetment, and one year for non-cooperation with the anti-corruption bureau also to run concurrently. Considered to be Sharif's political heir, Maryam will serve seven years in total.
Sharif's son-in-law Capt (retd) Muhammad Safdar was jailed for one year for not cooperating with the anti-graft authorities. Amid tight security, the court delivered the much-anticipated verdict after postponing it for five times during the day in the Avenfield corruption case -- pertaining to the ownership of four flats in the posh Avenfield House in London.
The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) had filed the case, along with two others, on the Supreme Court's directives in the landmark Panamagate verdict last year which disqualified Sharif, the three-time prime minister.
Sharif, 68, is currently in London attending to his wife Kulsoom Nawaz who was diagnosed with throat cancer last year. Sharif's daughter Maryam and his two sons - Hassan and Hussain - are in London, while Captain Safdar is in Pakistan, but was not present in court.
Both Hassan and Hussain have been declared as absconders by the court. The NAB will now wait for a certain time period for all three convicts to surrender. If they fail to do so, the NAB will initiate the procedure to bring Maryam and Nawaz back, and arrest Safdar, Dawn newspaper reported.
The ruling came weeks before the general elections in Pakistan on July 25 and analysts say it could adversely hit the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the party headed by Sharif. After the verdict, Maryam and Safdar were disqualified from contesting elections.
NAB deputy prosecutor general Sardar Muzaffar Abbasi said the accused have 10 days to file an appeal against the verdict.
Ready to face: Nawaz
Addressing a press conference in London along with his daughter Maryam, Sharif said, "I promise that I will continue this struggle until Pakistanis are not free of the chains that they are kept in for saying the truth."
]"I will continue my struggle till the people of Pakistan are not freed of the slavery imposed on them by some generals and judges," he was quoted as saying by the Dawn.
Nawaz remarked that if the punishment for "demanding respect for the vote is jail, I am coming to face it".
Small punishment: Maryam
Soon after the verdict, Maryam took to Twitter to share this message: "This is a very small punishment for firmly standing in front of unseen forces. The morale to fight against oppression has increased today."
Islamabad-based accountability court judge Mohammad Bashir pronounced the verdict behind closed doors. Earlier, he had rejected the application of the Sharif family seeking a seven-day postponement in announcement of the verdict.
"The court sentenced Sharif to 10 years rigorous imprisonment and fined eight million pounds (over $10 million). Maryam was given seven years of rigorous imprisonment and imposed two million pounds (over USD 2.6 million) and her husband Muhammad Safdar was awarded one year rigorous imprisonment," the NAB prosecution team chief Sardar Muzaffar Abbasi told media outside the court.
The court also ordered confiscation of Avenfield apartments in favour of Pakistan. The fine money will go into the state treasury. Abbasi also said that the verdict showed that Avenfield apartments were purchased with corruption money and were in ownership of Sharif family since 1993.
The PML-N President and Nawaz Sharif's brother, Shehbaz Sharif rejected the convictions calling them unjust and politically motivated. Besides Sharif, his daughter Maryam and son-in-law Safdar, his sons Hassan and Hussain were also co-accused. The two sons never appeared before the court and were declared as absconders.
Sharif resigned as Pakistan prime minister last year after the Supreme Court disqualified him from holding public office and ruled that graft cases be filed against the beleaguered leader and his children over the Panama Papers scandal.
The NAB had registered three cases of corruption and money laundering against Sharif, his family members and former Finance Minister Ishaq Dar in the Islamabad Accountability Court. The Avenfield case hearing lasted for more than nine months and both Sharif and his daughter attended dozens of hearings.
During the trial, the NAB presented around 21 witnessed to prove that Sharif family cannot justify the money trail to buy four apartments in Avenfield House, Park Lane, London. It is alleged that the properties were allegedly bought with graft money in 1990s when he served twice as the prime minister.
Sharif rejected any wrongdoing and insisted they were bought with the legitimate money. According to Pakistani media reports, Sharif and Maryam were in their apartment in the Avenfield building in London when the verdict was announced. After the conviction, it was not sure if Sharif and Maryam would come back to face rigorous imprisonment.
Analysts believe that if they return, it might boost the chances of good showing in elections by the PML-N due to sympathy vote.
Sharif's nemesis Imran Khan of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) said even before verdict that Sharif will be sent to jail due to his corruption, as he accused him of using illness of his wife Kulsoom as "emotional blackmail".
"Sharif did not remember his wife while she was under treatment in London and he was holding public meetings across the country," the cricketer-turned-politician said.