Thwarted return of ousted politician Nawaz Sharif roils Pakistan
Pakistan's former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif arrived back Monday after seven years in exile. It was a brief, stormy homecoming: On arrival, he was arrested by authorities on longstanding corruption charges. Within hours, The Washington Post reported that Mr. Sharif had been deported to Saudi Arabia.
Sharif had flown in from London on a commercial flight. On arrival in Islamabad, the Associated Press reported that he refused to hand over his passport to officials as police commandos guarded the plane. After a tense 90-minute standoff, he was escorted inside to the airport VIP lounge.
The Chicago Tribune reports that authorities had put barricades around the airport and detained thousands of Sharif supporters to stop them from rallying. Ahsan Iqbal, a party spokesman, said he and other party officials had hidden to escape the security dragnet.
"They have been hunting for each one of us," Iqbal said. "It's very shameful what they have done. It just proves the point that there is no democracy in Pakistan. This is a military dictatorship."
Sharif's return was a direct challenge to President Pervez Musharraf, who ousted him in a 1999 coup and faces mounting opposition to his rule. Sharif is seeking to contest an upcoming presidential election. Agence-France Presse reported that Sharif had said he was returning to give "a final push to a crumbling dictatorship."
On Aug. 23, Pakistan's Supreme Court ruled that Sharif and his family had the "inalienable right" to enter the country. Pakistan's The Dawn reported Monday on the constitutional wrangle over Sharif's return. Prominent constitutional expert Abid Hasan Minto said authorities would be in contempt of court if they deported Sharif and other leaders of his Pakistan Muslim League for breaking his terms of exile.
He said the government's argument that under the agreement the PML-N leaders could not return to Pakistan for 10 years held no water. The agreement in question, he said, was only a 'moral commitment' which was further diluted as the Sharifs were saying it was valid only for five years.
Mr Minto, who is also former president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, said the agreement was not something on the basis of which the government could take a legal position. "Any action on the basis of this document would not be tenable".
The Financial Times reports that Sharif's plan to return had alarmed Saudi Arabia, which brokered the 2000 arrangement that allowed Sharif to leave Pakistan and go into exile. Saudi intelligence chief Prince Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz met Saturday with Mr. Musharraf in a show of support and publicly urged Sharif to stick to his pledge to remain in exile until 2010.
"We are hoping, we are really hoping, sincerely hoping, his excellency Nawaz Sharif honours this agreement," said Prince Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz, Saudi Arabia's intelligence chief, after a three-hour meeting with Gen Musharraf.
Prince Muqrin's visit to Pakistan marks Saudi Arabia's most visible direct intervention in the country's domestic politics. He was accompanied by Saad Hariri, son of Rafiq Hariri, the slain Lebanese prime minister.
Pakistan's political timetable is ticking down, Bloomberg reported Monday. Lawmakers are due to vote to elect the next president for a five-year term between Sept. 15 and Oct. 15. Parliamentary elections are to be held next January. To stay in power, Musharraf has turned to another opposition politician.
Musharraf has tried to shore up support by seeking a power sharing agreement with Benazir Bhutto, who leads the nation's largest opposition group, the Pakistan Peoples Party.
Bhutto, a former premier who also lives in exile, met Musharraf in Dubai on July 27. She has demanded Musharraf quit as Army chief before the presidential election and give up his constitutional power to sack the government.
A BBC profile describes how Sharif clashed with members of the judiciary during his second term over amendments to the Constitution. Critics at the time accused Sharif, the scion of a prominent family in Lahore, of trying to stifle opposition to his rule. Musharraf has also faced resistance from the judiciary in recent months.
After becoming prime minister again in 1997 with a comfortable majority, Mr Sharif brought about a series of constitutional changes.
These were seen as part of an attempt to stifle any institutional opposition to his rule.
He controversially reversed a constitutional amendment which took away the president's powers to dismiss the prime minister.
A power struggle with the judiciary also gripped the country after Mr Sharif fell out with the then Chief Justice, Sajjad Ali Shah.
Mr Sharif faced possible disqualification from office after charges of contempt of court were brought against him, but these were eventually dismissed.
Sharif's brother Shahbaz Sharif, a close political ally and former minister, didn't join him on the flight home. He stayed in London. The Associated Press reported Friday that Shahbaz Sharif is wanted on murder charges dating back to 1998. An anticorruption court has separately reopened hearings into a case against the Sharif family that had been put on hold until recently.
An antiterrorism court in the eastern city of Lahore on Friday ordered the arrest of Shahbaz Sharif in a murder case, said Aftab Ahmed Bajwa, a lawyer for the plaintiff.
Shahbaz was charged with ordering the police to kill five men. The men were gunned down in Lahore in 1998, when Shahbaz was the chief minister, or top executive, of Punjab Province, and Nawaz was prime minister.
On Wednesday, the father of one of the victims asked the court to arrest Shahbaz after hearing that he was planning to return to Pakistan, Bajwa said. The former chief minister has denied the allegations.
Amid the drama of Sharif's return, Voice of America reported on a surge in Pakistan-trained suicide bombers in Afghanistan. A United Nations report released Sunday said the number of suicide bombings rose last year to 123 from 17 attacks in 2005. It said that most of the bombers were Afghans who had been trained in neighboring Pakistan's tribal region, often after enrolling at Islamic schools known as madrassahs.
Pakistan has deployed tens of thousands of soldiers to the region to try to prevent militant activity but has so far failed to stop the training and movement of insurgents across the porous border.
The report, partly based on interviews with alleged failed suicide bombers in jail, said in contrast to most of the world's suicide bombers the majority of those in Afghanistan were young, poor, and uneducated, and often not aware of what they were getting into.