SITTING stony-faced at the back of a business-class cabin on an Etihad flight from London to the Pakistani city of Lahore, Nawaz Sharif waited patiently for his arrest on the evening of July 13th. His only sign of stress was a balled-up napkin in his right fist. Journalists ignored the pleas of cabin staff to stay in their seats. They clustered around the former prime minister of Pakistan and jabbered reports into smartphones held out on selfie-sticks. Mr Sharif sat still. To his left his 44-year-old daughter, Maryam, occasionally adjusted her white veil. At last around a dozen camouflaged paramilitary police in red berets boarded the plane. Those who reached Mr Sharif first paused by his seat. Supporters yelled from economy class. Mr Sharif slowly rose.

A week earlier Pakistan’s National Accountability Bureau (NAB), an anti-graft court, had sentenced Mr Sharif, in absentia, to ten years in prison for corruption in connection with the purchase of luxury apartments in London’s Park Lane by members of his family. It had also given a seven-year sentence to Maryam. Many thought he would stay in London, where his wife, Kulsoom, is on a ventilator after treatment for throat cancer. When he did decide to return, just 12 days before a general election, there was much speculation that his flight might be diverted to Islamabad to avoid possible attempts by supporters to prevent his arrest in Lahore, his hometown. Some even wondered whether he might be seized by Pakistani agents during his stopover in Abu Dhabi, where the airline is based. At the airport lounge there Mr Sharif himself hinted at dark forces behind an extra wait of one-and-a-half hours: “Think about who is behind this delay and why,” he said.

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But the arrest went smoothly, doubtless to the Pakistani authorities’ great relief. It may have helped that there had been an intense crackdown on Mr Sharif’s supporters in Lahore. Around 10,000 police were deployed across the city to prevent a column of tens of thousands of his fans from reaching the airport. Lorries and containers were used to cut off roads leading to it. The caretaker provincial government blocked access to the internet and mobile phone services. Almost 300 workers of Mr Sharif’s Pakistan…