The power given to the state to restrict citizens’ freedom of movement under the Exit Control List is meant to be used only sparingly in cases where those under trial are considered genuine flight risks. It is not meant to be a tool of political persecution. Yet that is exactly what Nawaz Sharif believes is the motivation behind the National Accountability Bureau’s decision to ask the interior ministry to place him and his family on the ECL. It is true that the Sharif family have regularly travelled to London while their trials are ongoing, with the stated aim of visiting the ailing Kulsoom Nawaz. However, Nawaz and his daughter Maryam Nawaz have returned for all their court dates and only asked for short exemptions from personal court appearances to visit Kulsoom – a request which is usually granted in such circumstances. The impression created by placing them on the ECL is one of pressure being applied on the Sharif family. A five-member interior ministry panel will now review the NAB request. While it is up to the ministry to grant or reject the request, the fact that the recommendation has been made means that political opponents of the PML-N are sure to cry foul if it is rejected.
Nawaz has been saying consistently that the forces arrayed against him include not just his political opponents but also those prosecuting his cases. The difficult position the interior ministry has been put in can only add to such claims. That this NAB request comes right after the PML-N’s surprise by-election victory in Lodhran also furthers that belief. It is quite possible for Nawaz and the PML-N to feel that they are being seen as too politically powerful and so are being brought down a peg. Nawaz’s rallies have been successful in building the case that there is a conspiracy against him and with questions having been raised in court about his continued hold over the party presidency, he may well link all these decisions as part of the same movement against him. It is also easy for the PML-N to point out that Nawaz’s almost-daily political rallies should be seen as evidence that he wants to stay and fight rather than run away. The former prime minister may have been critical of the Supreme Court verdict disqualifying him from holding public office but so far he has submitted to the judicial proceedings against him and accepted the punishments given. The latest NAB move seems like a bit of an overreach.