A Pakistani court has ordered the release of ousted premier Nawaz Sharif and his daughter on bail, suspending an accountability court's corruption sentences. This could pose a political challenge to PM Imran Khan.
The Islamabad High Court on Wednesday suspended the 10-year jail sentence for Nawaz Sharif and the 7-year sentence for his daughter Maryam Nawaz.
On July 6, an accountability court in Islamabad found ex-Prime Minister Sharif and his family guilty of corruption in the Panama Papers case, and sentenced Sharif to 10 years in prison.
The Avenfield case, which is linked to the Panama Papers scandal, pertains to the purchase of four apartments in London. It was filed against Sharif and his family by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB).
Sharif's lawyers had challenged the sentences in the Islamabad court.
"For reasons to be recorded later on, the petition of Nawaz Sharif, Maryam Nawaz and Mohammad Safdar [Sharif's son-in-law] are allowed," said Justice Athar Minallah.
The Sharifs' convictions are still under appeal, but Sharif, Maryam and Safdar will be released from jail after completing legal formalities.
Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) party maintains that the corruption charges against the former premier are politically motivated and his jail sentence was part of a "scheme" to defeat him in the July 25 elections.
"Justice has been served and I congratulate Nawaz Sharif's supporters," former foreign minister Khawaja Asif, a Sharif aide, said outside the courtroom where Sharif's supporters were seen celebrating his release on bail.
Legal hurdles remain for Sharif
Although the Sharifs have received relief from the court, their legal woes are unlikely to end any time soon.
"The Sharifs' conviction is still there, and today's verdict is just a suspension. Sharif is still a criminal," Faisal Javed, a senator from the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI, Movement for Justice) party, told DW.
"There are more cases pending in the accountability court. It is just a temporary relief," Javed added.
Abid Hasan Manto, an ex-president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, told DW Sharif still has to face trials.
But some legal experts say the accountability court's verdict against Sharif is weak, and that it is only a matter of time before a higher court will strike it down.
"During the appeal hearing against Sharif's conviction, the NAB couldn't satisfy the Islamabad High Court and changed its prosecutor three times," Muneeb Farooq, a legal expert and analyst, told DW.
An attempt to sideline Sharif?
But Ahsan Iqbal, a Sharif aid, told reporters outside the Islamabad High Court that Sharif's sentencing was a "revenge verdict" against the former premier.
"It was part of the pre-poll rigging. It was meant to keep Sharif from out of the election race and pave the way for Imran Khan's victory in the polls," Iqbal said.
Cricketer-turned politician Khan, who was inaugurated as prime minister last month, won the July 25 general election and secured most seats in parliament. Sharif's party came second.
"Sharif was convicted on assumptions, but this affected [his party's performance in] the election. It can't be reversed now," Talal Chaudhary, a former minister in Sharif's government, told DW.
Read more: Opinion: Imran Khan's dangerous victory
Many analysts and rights groups pointed to a systematic crackdown on Sharif's PML-N party and independent media ahead of the vote as proof of "pre-election rigging."
Three-time PM Sharif never completed a term as prime minister, having been removed during his second term by a military coup by General Pervez Musharraf in 1999.
Some analysts say the verdict against Sharif, who remains popular among the Pakistani electorate, gave the Pakistani military more behind-the-scenes influence. The powerful military has ruled the South Asian country for nearly half of its history.
Political observers also say that the army leadership had become very skeptical of Sharif due to his repeated attempts to improve ties with India and enhance trade between the two South Asian nuclear-armed archrivals. Also, a strong civilian government has always been a threat to the military's unchecked power, they say.
Problems for PM Khan
Sharif's release, even temporarily, has the potential to create a political storm in Pakistan. The South Asian country's new PM, Khan, is still in the process of settling in. Sharif's bail may reinvigorate the former PM's supporters and will also strengthen the narrative that the cases against him are politically motivated.
"Sharif can create problems for Khan. The incumbent premier is responsible for Sharif's ouster, so I think the former prime minster will try to make things difficult for Khan," Amjad Shoaib, a retired military official, told DW.
"Sharif will try to unite the opposition against Khan. He is likely to hold public rallies and demonstrations. He is also free to speak against the [military] establishment," Shoaib said, adding that the NAB should have dealt with Sharif's appeal in the high court in a better way.
Additional reporting by Sattar Khan and Haroon Janjua, DW's correspondents in Islamabad.