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Will he return, or won’t he?

M. Ziauddin

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s application for visa extension has been turned own by the United Kingdom’s Home Office, but with the right to appeal allowed against the decision. Since he has already lodged the necessary appeal at the Immigration Tribunal ‘for the time being’ his visa to stay in the UK, nevertheless, remains valid.

On the other hand, in the first flush, the home based PMLN leadership had seemingly kept panic, if there was any caused by the rejection news, under effective control; but the same cannot be said about the Party’s grassroots support which, for a short time, seemed to have been shaken from its hinges because such a possibility had remained far too removed from their imagination.

Reports reaching here from London talk of a degree of confidence on the part of Nawaz and his family that the Immigration Tribunal would grant further visa extension ‘taking into consideration the circumstances surrounding his case’.

Those who claim to know the UK rules that cover such visa extension cases believe that the earlier extensions allowed to Nawaz presumably on health grounds had a maximum life of 18 months. Any automatic extension of his visa without referring the case to Home Office would have been seen as the UK government taking a political position to side with Nawaz in his running feud against the Pakistani establishment. For London it would have been too tactless a position to take vis-à-vis Islamabad.

Therefore, the resulting legal rigmarole, in the process of which he seems to have re-earned UK’s hospitality ‘for the time being’.

According to the UK legal experts ‘for the time being’ could last from 9 months to more than a year and a half (20 months). This period does not even take into account any potential subsequent judicial review once all appeal rights have been exhausted.

So, although Mr. Nawaz Sharif has been refused visa extension, it is not necessarily the end of his stay in UK. There are several grounds and precedents which are available under the UK’s immigration laws for those seeking relief. The application could be based on human rights grounds namely under Article 8 and possibly also under article 3 of the European convention on human rights.

Under Article 3, Nawaz Sharif would need to prove that his health would be at a real risk of serious, rapid and irreversible decline resulting in either intense suffering or substantial reduction in life expectancy due to lack of medical treatment or access to that. This is a very high threshold and very difficult to succeed on. But Article 3 also provides protection against torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. “In medical claims a claimant may claim his return would amount to inhuman or degrading treatment.” The threshold under article 8 is lower but there is a huge amount of discretion involved in those applications and they are decided based on what is fair and reasonable based on a concept of proportionality.

Due to the ongoing backlog caused by the pandemic, it could take nearly two years before a decision is made on Nawaz Sharif’s appeal and in the event his appeal is refused he still has the right to launch the whole process anew through a fresh application.

But what is at stake here for Nawaz and his PMLN?

Well, in case Nawaz succeeds in winning an almost permanent stay- visa and prefers to remain in UK for the rest of his life, then he would probably be writing what could be the PMLN’s obituary.

On the other hand, in case he returns to Pakistan say after 9-10 months, he would certainly go straight to jail. But then even an incarcerated Nawaz in Pakistan would be politically too formidable for the PTI-led coalition government to confront in the final year of its 5-year term.

If one recalled the way the former Prime Minister was monopolizing the political scene in the country since the very inception of the PTI government in August 2018, his departure for UK in November 2019 and his extended over stay of nearly two years there did provide, in retrospect, Prime Minister Imran Khan the much needed space, (though still not complete, thanks to Maryam Sharif’s crowd pulling capacity) to re-enforce his own and his Party’s political presence.

The fact that both official and private medical boards found the platelet crisis of Sharif to be genuine and also the fact that courts were too accommodating to let Nawaz proceed to UK at no great cost to him monetarily and with the minimum of legal hassle, makes one wonder if it was all not the handiwork of the establishment to get Nawaz out of Imran’s way so that the PM Khan governs without being challenged by Nawaz on daily basis from his jail cell. So, if Nawaz does not return home before the next elections it is certainly going to be curtains for the PMLN; but if he returns home during the last leg of Khan’s term, we are most likely to witness a highly interesting general election!

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