Authorities have mobilized more than 10,000 police officers ahead of their arrival and plan to block roads with shipping containers to shut down the city of Lahore
Ousted Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam arrived back to Pakistan on Friday to face lengthy prison sentences, in a high-stakes gamble to galvanise their beleaguered party ahead of a July 25 election.
The plane carrying Sharif and his daughter touched down in the central city of Lahore at around 8:45pm local time. The pair, who were sentenced in absentia on corruption charges last week, were taken to custody soon after their arrival.
According to Pakistani media reports, dozens of security officials entered the plane after it landed and asked other passengers to leave. The duo's passports were seized by a three-member law enforcement team.
Both Nawaz and Maryam were permitted to meet Begum Shamim Akhtar, Nawaz's mother, who was waiting at the airport to meet them, before arrest.
Their return could shake up an election race marred by accusations Pakistan's powerful military is working behind the scenes to skew the contest in favour of ex-cricket hero Imran Khan, who describes Sharif as a "criminal" who deserves no support.
Clashes broke out Friday evening at the main highway entry point to Lahore between pro-Sharif protesters and police who had been deployed in their thousands, a Reuters witness said. There were no immediate reports of injuries.
Mobile phone service was cut off by mid-afternoon, as Sharif's brother, Shehbaz, led around 10,000 supporters of his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) on a march toward the city centre in defiance of a citywide ban on public gatherings, according to a witness.
Nawaz Sharif decried the tactics ordered by the caretaker government that took over in June ahead of the general election, as Pakistan's constitution requires.
"What credibility will these elections have when the government is taking such a drastic action against our people and this crackdown is taking place all over the country?" Sharif said at the airport in Abu Dhabi as he waited for a connecting flight to Lahore.
Pakistan's third major political movement, the Pakistan Peoples Party, joined the criticism of the crackdown, with its prime ministerial candidate Bilawal Bhutto Zardari questioning why Sharif's supporters would be arrested and prevented from gathering.
"Why is Lahore under siege? Right to peaceful protest is fundamental for democracy," tweeted Bhutto Zardari, the son of two-time prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated at a political rally in 2007.
Sharif is returning from Britain after an anti-corruption court handed him a 10-year jail term and sentenced his daughter and political heir to seven years in prison after they failed to prove that money used to buy luxury flats in London in the 1990s was not ill-gotten.
Sharif alleges the military is aiding a "judicial witch-hunt" against him and his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party. The party's past five years in power has been punctuated by the civil-military discord that has plagued Pakistan since its inception.
The military, which has ruled Pakistan for about half its history since 1947, has denied interfering in modern-day politics. It plans to place 371,000 soldiers around polling stations so there can a "free and fair" elections, an army spokesman said this week.
Sharif's PML-N expects a groundswell of support as he returns from London, where his wife Kulsoom is critically ill and undergoing cancer treatment.
To prevent PML-N workers staging a hero's welcome on the streets, authorities said they would arrest the father and daughter upon landing and transport them to the capital Islamabad by helicopter, local media reported.
Sharif was ordered jailed in a case stemming from 2016 Panama Papers revelations that showed they owned the apartments through off-shore companies. Maryam was convicted for concealing ownership of the apartments. They both deny wrongdoing.
After the Supreme Court ousted Sharif last July, the courts barred him from heading the PML-N party he founded. His brother Shehbaz became PML-N's president, but Sharif remains the power behind the throne.
Since then, a host of his allies have been either disqualified by the courts, or face corruption cases. Many PML-N lawmakers have also defected to Khan's party.