File photo of former Chief Minister of Punjab province and President of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) Shehbaz Sharif (Center). Photo: AFP/PML-N Media Cell /Anadolu Agency
File photo of former Chief Minister of Punjab province and President of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) Shehbaz Sharif (Center). Photo: AFP/PML-N Media Cell /Anadolu Agency

Pakistan’s opposition leader Shehbaz Sharif has been arrested for alleged corruption in the latest scandal to hit the Sharif political dynasty.

The brother of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif faces charges of graft relating to a low-cost housing scheme in Punjab province, according to Shahzad Saleem, the head of a regional anti-corruption body.

Shehbaz, the president of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), was arrested by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) on Friday in connection to the PKR 14 billion (US$113.31 million) Ashiana Housing Scheme. He is alleged to have misappropriated funds from the project.

“We are assessing the situation and consulting party leadership to prepare a strategy for a future course of action,” Malik Ahmed Khan, a spokesman from the PML-N party, told AFP.

Former Punjab Province governor Shehbaz was due to appear in court later on Saturday. But law enforcement officials confirmed to Asia Times that the NAB would ask for him to remain in police custody for two weeks while investigations continue.

If that happens, it would mean he would be unable to take part in nationwide by-elections on October 14 involving 30 parliamentary seats following July’s general election.

“Shehbaz Sharif on Friday appeared before an investigation team of the National Accountability Bureau Lahore,” Nawazish Ali Asim, a NAB spokesperson, said.  “He was arrested after he failed to satisfy the investigator for his alleged role in awarding contracts to his favorite firm in violations of rules in the Ashiana Housing scheme and Punjab Saaf Pani Company.”

The Ashiana Housing Scheme was launched by the Punjab government in 2010. Nearly seven years later only 50 families out of 60,000 had moved in. This resulted in accusations of misappropriation of funds and illegal contracts.

In November last year, the NAB  announced it would investigate the development and in January Shehbaz was accused of illegally canceling a contract awarded to the highest bidder.

He was then accused of directing the Punjab Land Development Company to hand over the housing scheme to Lahore Development Authority (LDA). This was followed by the arrests of officials, including former LDA chief Ahad Cheema.

While the case has dragged on for nearly a year, the timing of Shehbaz’s arrest is being interpreted by PML-N as a bid to sabotage the party’s chances in the upcoming by-elections.

His brother, PML-N supreme leader and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, said in a statement that the allegations against Shehbaz were “ridiculous,” and blamed Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government for the witch hunt.

“It’s common knowledge that this is the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) government taking revenge. But they should be prepared to face the treatment they are meting out to their opponents,” Nawaz said.

In July, an anti-corruption court sentenced Nawaz Sharif to 10 years in prison over properties his family allegedly owned in the United Kingdom, following revelations in the Panama Papers.

He was released from prison last month after a court suspended his sentence pending an appeal. But he missed the general election campaign, which PML-N’s leaders maintain was a major reason for the party’s defeat.

Shehbaz’s son Hamza Shehbaz has also accused Imran Khan of orchestrating his father’s arrest. “The incompetence of (Imran Khan’s) government is becoming more evident.” PML-N insiders point out that the move to arrest Shehbaz was pre-planned and timed to avoid defeat in the by-elections, which could dissolve the PTI government.

“This is the latest example of the Army, judiciary, NAB, and the PTI government working in tandem to target our party leadership,” a PML-N leader told Asia Times. “They know that the ridiculous policies of the government of their laadla [blue-eyed boy, a reference to Imran Khan] in the first two months [in power] is already creating dissent among the masses, so they don’t want to risk losing their backed horse and the dissolution of his government,” the politician added.

Should the PML-N win a significant number of the 11 national and 19 provincial assembly seats, Imran Khan’s party could see their majority in Parliament disappear. This, in turn, would open the way for Shehbaz Sharif’s party to return to power in the coveted province of Punjab.

The PML-N’s narrative of a witch hunt has been gaining transaction after Punjab Information Minister Fiazul Hassan Chohan revealed in a press conference that former Federal Railways Minister Khawaja Saad Rafique and former Punjab Health Minister Salman Rafique “are likely to be arrested” in another alleged development scam involving the Paragan Housing Scheme.

Still, Federal Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry denied the allegations the government was targeting the PML-N leadership.

“NAB isn’t a government-controlled body. It functions completely independently. The government is completely impartial in the trials,” Chaudhry said. “But yes we, as the representatives of Pakistanis, will ensure that justice is meted out to those who have plundered the nation’s wealth.”

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