Court sentence clears Pakistan of power rivals

Sharif's lawyers plan to appeal to the Karachi High Court within the next seven days.

When Pakistan leader Nawaz Sharif blocked the landing on Oct. 12 of a Karachi-bound airliner carrying Army chief Gen. Pervez Musharraf, he set off a military coup, sealed his own conviction this week for hijacking, and may have ruined a chance for an effective future appeal.

Pakistan has only two major political figures at present, and the sentence handed to Mr. Sharif by a Karachi court yesterday likely ends the career of one of them. The other, Benazir Bhutto, is now living in exile abroad with no possibility of return to this troubled country. The military-led regime of General Musharraf intends to push aside Pakistan's old, elite clan of leaders before restoring democracy, experts here say.

Sharif's guilty verdict, in what critics call a political show trial, also offers the face of legitimacy for Musharraf's regime. Had the special antiterrorism court, ironically set up by Sharif himself to conduct speedy trials, found the former prime minister innocent - Pakistan would have thrown further into political and constitutional chaos.

"For the regime, this is a major day, its position is vindicated," argues Ayesha Jalal, a Pakistani-American Macarthur Fellow and South Asian historian at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., who watched the verdict from Lahore. "I'm not sure the Pakistani people have been pushed or challenged by the verdict, since the trial is not a burning issue here."

Actually, so popular was the coup last fall, in which Pakistani generals promised to reform years of deep and systematic corruption, that the Sharif trial became something of an odd sideshow - albeit a dramatic one.

*In December, the special judge assigned to the case quit, complaining too many "intelligence agents" were present in the court.

*In January, following a series of rulings (by Sharif-installed judges) that could challenge Musharraf's legitimacy, the general required all judges to sign a loyalty oath.

*In February, Sharif's lawyer was shot and killed by unidentified gunmen.

*In March, the military regime banned all public demonstrations.

*Then, two weeks ago, in a somewhat chilly stopover in Pakistan, President Clinton told Musharraf that the US would frown on a death sentence for Sharif.

After the last military coup in 1977 by Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged on what were controversial murder charges. (Sharif started his political career as one of General Zia's protgs.)

On July 4, Sharif and Mr. Clinton met in Washington and arranged an ending to the 10-week "Kargil War" - a deal that was viewed darkly in Pakistani military ranks.

Awaiting the sentence

For weeks, pundits in both India and Pakistan have speculated about whether Sharif would also face the gallows. Sharif and six codefendants were charged with hijacking, terrorism, kidnapping, and attempted murder. But in what appears to have been a surprisingly lenient and even moderate sentence, Sharif was found guilty only of hijacking and terrorism - and the six others, including Sharif's powerful brother, Shabaz, the former Chief Minister of Punjab, were acquitted and released.

When the verdict was announced just after midday Wednesday by Judge Rehmat Hussain Jafri, Sharif family members present shouted "Allah-o-Akbar" (God is great).

"The acquittals indicate that the court was unable to prove this was a case of conspiracy," says Dr. Jalal.

Appeal planned

Sharif's lawyers plan to appeal to a Karachi High Court within the next seven days. They will argue that Sharif as a democratically elected leader had the constitutional right to dismiss Musharraf, the move that started the coup.

However, so narrow is the ruling by Judge Jafri, that it is questionable whether the grounds for hijacking can be reversed by an appeal or that new constitutional issues can be considered, experts say. During the trial, voiceovers from the cockpit of the passenger plane, carrying 198 civilians, make clear that the Karachi control tower would not allow the airliner to land, even though the pilot reported he had only seven minutes of fuel remaining. (Some airline experts argue that commercial airliners do have emergency fuel stores that would have given the plane greater time in the air.)

"If Sharif had been sentenced to death, that would have alienated international public opinion against Musharraf," says Amitabh Mattoo, one of India's more prolific writers on security issues, who feels that the outcome of the trial was engineered by the military. "Musharraf had to walk a tight rope on this trial. He couldn't look too tough, but had to keep Sharif, the only popular leader still in the country, behind bars."

During Pakistan's "decade of democracy," Sharif was prime minister for six years - coming to power first in 1990, and then again in 1997.

Further, the spectacle of a democratically elected prime minister on trial is especially tragic in Sharif's case, observers say. Sharif seemed to represent hope and prosperity and reform - particularly in '97, when he was elected by a two-thirds majority. The ethnic Punjabi, from urban industrial background, came in on a wave of popular disgust with economic mismanagement of the Benazir Bhutto government, and with the near-feudal system of democracy in which a coterie of some 30 to 40 families ruled the country.

For some time, Sharif somewhat autocratic, strongman tactics - his trimming of the judiciary, including the replacement of a chief justice, a president, and an Army chief - were seen as necessary examples of a civilian authority whipping the country into shape.

However, in the past two years, Sharif's tactics became unpopular. He began to ignore human rights problems. He cracked down on freedom of expression, arresting the editor of a popular Lahore newspaper, Najim Sethi. Other journalists were harassed.

Fed up with corruption

But the largest sense of betrayal felt by average Pakistanis, and voiced loudly after the Oct. 12 coup, was the backing and even promotion of patronage and greedy pilfering of public money. Sharif built a marble palace in Islamabad. He notoriously purchased more than 200 pounds of meat per day. In a poverty-stricken country, he built a high-tech 90-bed hospital - across the street from his villa in a tiny town outside Lahore.

In fact, some of the strongest criticism of the current trial against Sharif is that it was not a trial for the more serious crimes against the state, such as corruption - but for the more flimsy and politically motivated charges of airplane hijacking and terrorism.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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