updated 8/23/2007 8:24:14 AM ET 2007-08-23T12:24:14

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif can return to Pakistan from exile, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday, dealing another setback to President Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

Sharif and his family "have an inalienable right to enter and remain in the country as citizens of Pakistan," Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry said.

Their return should not be "hampered or obstructed" by the authorities, the court said.

Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, another banished ex-premier, are vowing to return and lead a growing campaign to restore democracy, increasing the pressure on Musharraf to end eight years of military rule.

Earlier on Thursday, a lawyer for Sharif told the Supreme Court that his client had an “undeniable, unqualified, fundamental right to remain in Pakistan and contest the forthcoming elections.”

“You have no right to send someone abroad, to send someone into exile,” attorney Fakhruddin Ibrahim said to government lawyers in the first hearing on a petition filed by the former leader and his brother.

Musharraf banished Sharif and his family to Saudi Arabia in December 2000, the year after Musharraf ousted Pakistan’s last civilian-led government in a bloodless coup.

Musharraf has said he let Sharif out of jail and allowed him to leave Pakistan under an arrangement whereby he would not return for at least 10 years.

On Wednesday, government lawyers gave the court a copy of what it said was the agreement signed by Sharif.

However, the document neither mentions Pakistan’s government nor carries the signature of any Pakistani official — a point seized on by Sharif and his lawyers to contest its validity.

“It has to be ignored,” Ibrahim said.

Unspecified legal action
Government lawyers have said they cannot prevent Sharif from returning but warn that he could face unspecified legal action when he reaches Pakistani soil.

Musharraf, who moved against Sharif after he tried to replace him as army chief, has vowed to prevent the exiled former leaders from returning.

But with the United States urging stronger action against Taliban and al-Qaida militants in Pakistan, he has begun talking of the need for political reconciliation and for moderates to unite against extremism.

Musharraf and Bhutto are currently engaged in talks about a possible power-sharing deal that could help him gain a new five-year presidential term this fall.

The presidential vote, due by mid-October, is to be followed by year-end parliamentary elections, where the main opposition parties of Sharif and Bhutto hope to make gains.

Bhutto, who left Pakistan in 1999 to avoid arrest on corruption charges, insists Musharraf must give up his military post to win her party’s support.

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