An accountability court sentenced former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to seven years in prison on corruption charges on Monday, giving fresh impetus to allegations of the judiciary’s political bias.

Sharif being jailed has been cited by many as another example of the all-powerful military sidelining a popular politician who took them on. Sharif has had a checkered past with the military, losing power after a coup by then army chief General Pervez Musharraf in October 1999. Since then, Sharif and the military have been at loggerheads.

The latest verdict came a little more than three months after the Islamabad High Court suspended the accountability court’s judgment against Sharif, his daughter Maryam Nawaz and son-in-law Captain Mohammad Safdar (Retd).

The three had been sent to prison three weeks before the elections in July over allegations of corruption for owning four flats in London’s high-end Mayfair district. The court ruled that the flats were proof that Sharif and his family had indulged in corrupt means to fund the purchase of these flats.

Monday’s jail sentence was the fourth verdict against Sharif in less than 18 months, after he was ousted as Prime Minister by the Supreme Court over investigations into Panama Papers claims in July 2017, which was followed by a Supreme Court ruling in April this year that disqualified him from holding public office for life.

A corrupt elite

The Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf, or PTI, led government maintained that the verdict against Sharif vindicated its pre-election vow to ensure accountability by the corrupt elite. As the largest opposition party, the PTI had spent much of the five-year tenure of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) calling for the resignation of Sharif, citing corruption and election rigging allegations.

Critics of Sharif and the PML-N were lauding the accountability court’s verdict in acknowledgment of the government’s anti-corruption drive. The accountability measures were also appreciated in many quarters in light of Pakistan’s crippling economic crisis.

“A large chunk of Pakistan’s financial troubles are due to the economy being harmed from within. The accountability drive and action against the corrupt will help Pakistan improve its investment climate and revenue generating ability,” said veteran bureaucrat Shamshad Ahmad.

Even so, many analysts felt that the actions taken against Sharif in the past 18 months had been done at the behest of the all-powerful military that has sought to oust him owing to a well-publicized stand-off over the state’s security and foreign policies.

The Imran Khan-led four-month sit-in in the capital in 2014, calling for Sharif’s resignation, was seen as the first attempt to dislodge him, ensuring that Khan remained the army’s best bet in the last general elections, which independent observers maintained were manipulated by the military establishment to ensure the PTI’s triumph.

In October 2016, a leaked national security meeting report, published by the English-language daily Dawn, showed the then civilian government asking the army leadership to take action against militants “or face global isolation.”

A lot of the concerns raised by the PML-N leadership concerned the UN-designated terrorist Hafiz Saeed and groups associated with him.

Blacklisting risk

Since Sharif’s ouster, Saeed’s parties have been legitimized as part of Pakistan’s mainstream politics and contested this year’s elections, despite the Financial Action Task Force’s [FATF] warning over Pakistan being potentially blacklisted over inaction against these groups.

Last week, a video was leaked showing PTI leader and Interior Minister Shehryar Afridi vowing ‘full support’ to Saeed and his groups.

The PML-N leadership echoed claims that Sharif and his party were being singled out for clashing with the military leadership. “First [former military dictator General] Musharraf opened so-called accountability cases against Nawaz Sharif for nine years, and now for the past two years ma [paper’s revelations] is being used for hounding him,” said former interior minister and senior PML-N leader Ahsan Iqbal.

“And despite all that, not a single penny worth of corruption has been proven against him. Nawaz Sharif’s only fault is speaking up against the corrupting of the masses’ mandate.”

Imran Khan’s sister Khanum was let off with a fine by an accountability court, despite owning property worth 16 million United Arab Emirates Dirham, or US$4.3 million, in Dubai.

Meanwhile former PTI General Secretary Jahangir Khan Tareen, despite being disqualified for life under the same verdict handed out to Sharif, remains an influential figure in the party. This is especially so in the running of the Punjab government, with party insiders alleging that current Chief Minister Sardar Usman Buzdar is “Tareen’s man.”

Concerns have been raised that there is selective accountability shared by other parties as well, with the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) raising objections over a joint team investigating money laundering allegations against former President Asif Ali Zardari.

The absence of action against Musharraf, who remains in Dubai citing health reasons, despite being charged with treason for breaching the constitution, was also cited as evidence of skewed accountability being jointly orchestrated by the military and judiciary.

Citing the growing influence of Chief Justice of Pakistan Saqib Nisar, many legal experts and senior practitioners of law conceded that bias had played a role in political verdicts.

Veteran Supreme Court lawyer Abid Hassan Minto claimed there was “clear evidence” of the Chief Justice’s prejudice against the PML-N. “Whether that’s under someone’s influence or whether he genuinely believes such actions are better for the country’s future, only he would know,” Minto said.

Sharif was to be shifted from Rawalpindi’s Adiala Jail to Lahore’s Kot Lakhpat jail. The former premier is likely to appeal the judgment. Meanwhile, his brother Shehbaz, the PML-N president, has been in the National Accountability Bureau’s custody since his arrest over misappropriation of funds in a housing scheme in October, leaving the party in tatters.

With action against opposition politicians likely to increase, the ruling PTI will only be further strengthened. This should increase the stranglehold of the military establishment, especially over security and diplomacy.