President Gen. Pervez Musharraf defied Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Monday, sending commandos to the airport and tossing out a bitter rival hours after he returned from exile in hopes of a making political comeback and opposing the military leader.
The expulsion of Nawaz Sharif, who was ousted as an elected prime minister by Musharraf in a 1999 bloodless coup, could deepen the general’s unpopularity and undermine the legitimacy of upcoming elections.
Not long after he arrived from London to cheers from supporters accompanying him on the plane, Sharif was charged with corruption and money-laundering and bundled away by police from the airport VIP lounge. Four hours after landing, he was on a special flight to Saudi Arabia.
Pakistan’s deputy information minister Tariq Azim told the British Broadcasting Corp. Sharif chose to go back into exile to avoid being detained and standing trial.
“It was a choice given to him that either he goes to a detention center and be detained and tried, or he goes and completes his 10-year (exile) agreement that he has signed with the Saudi Government,” Azim told the BBC in an interview, according to an except provided ahead of its broadcast Monday night. “No hindrance or obstacle was placed upon his entry into Pakistan. He came here and he was given every assistance.”
EU criticizes Pakistan
Sharif’s unceremonious departure from the country where he had been exiled in 2000 scuttled his plans for a grand homecoming to campaign against the U.S.-allied Musharraf’s bid for election to a new presidential term amid growing public resentment over military rule.
“Musharraf has probably taken a decision to twist any law to do what he can do to stay in power. This is the politics of survival,” said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a political scientist at Lahore University of Management Sciences. “He is relying on strong-arm tactics, not the law and the constitution.”
The deportation in 2000 drew criticism from the European Union, which noted the Pakistani Supreme Court ruled last month that authorities had no right to block Sharif’s return.
The United States, which has valued Musharraf as an anti-terrorism ally since the Sept. 11 attacks, had a more guarded reaction.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the deportation “runs contrary to the Supreme Court decision.” But he declined to comment further, saying the “matter is still under legal consideration.”
Sharif’s party appealed the deportation in 2000 to the Supreme Court, which has issued a series of rulings challenging Musharraf’s dominance since his failed attempt in March to oust the court’s top judge ignited protests demanding democracy and civilian rule.
'A period of great instability'
The president is also struggling against Islamic extremism that has spread from the Afghan border region, where pro-Taliban militants are gaining sway and al-Qaida is feared to have regrouped.
“Pakistan is entering a period of great instability,” said Talat Masood, a retired general and political analyst who predicted Sharif’s deportation would cause more unrest. “This will agitate those people who are trying to fight for the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary and wanting the army to go back to the barracks.”
Clashes broke out Monday between security forces and Sharif supporters who attempted to greet him at the airport.
Police blockaded roads with trucks, tractors and barbed wire. They fired tear gas and Sharif supporters threw rocks in at least two locations near Islamabad and a bridge on the main highway leading to the capital from Pakistan’s northwest frontier. Several people were injured at each clash, Associated Press reporters said.
Protests were called for Tuesday, and a hard-line Islamic coalition allied with Sharif said it would join the demonstrations.
“This is an insult to our judiciary. This is a joke played on democracy and the constitution of Pakistan,” said Ameer ul-Azeem, the coalition spokesman.
Bhutto offers neutral stance
Not everyone condemned the departure. The opposition party led by Benazir Bhutto, another exiled former prime minister with ambitions to return for parliamentary elections, adopted a neutral stance.
Her Pakistan People’s Party said the Supreme Court “rightly ruled” that Sharif had a right to return home, but added that his reported 1999 agreement to avoid corruption charges by going into exile for a decade was a matter between him, those who helped broker the deal and Pakistan’s courts.
Sharif’s renewed exile could help clear the way for Bhutto and Musharraf to reach a power-sharing agreement.
Musharraf wants her party’s support to help him secure a new five-year presidential term when parliament elects a leader by mid-October. Bhutto wants corruption charges against her dropped and a chance to become prime minister for a third time after parliamentary elections due by mid-January.
Bhutto could face public criticism and dissent within her party if she teamed with Musharraf.
Musharraf and Bhutto “might think the path is now clear for them, but the longer term ramifications are going to be a new political polarization and doubts about the fairness of the electoral process,” said Rais, the political scientist in Lahore.
Other leaders under house arrest
At least four senior opposition leaders were under house arrest, among several hundred political party activists rounded up recently, officials said.
They included the head of an political alliance that supports Sharif, Qazi Hussain Ahmed; another hard-line Islamic lawmaker, Liaqat Baluch; the acting president of Sharif’s party, Javed Hashmi; and party chairman Raja Zafarul Haq, party and government officials said.
Sharif, the son of a wealthy industrialist, appointed Musharraf to the post of military chief in 1998, but his attempt to fire the general a year later triggered the coup that put Musharraf in power.
Accused of denying landing rights to a plane carrying Musharraf that was short on fuel, Sharif was jailed but later released and sent to Saudi Arabia after allegedly pledging not to return for a decade.
The government has accused Musharraf of reneging on the deal, which was reached with the assent of the Saudi government. The Saudi intelligence chief said Saturday in Islamabad that Sharif should respect the accord.
Sharif arrives in Saudi Arabia
When Sharif arrived early Monday on a Pakistan International Airlines flight from London, his jetliner was surrounded by black-uniformed commandos.
He was taken to the airport’s VIP lounge, where a senior investigator from Pakistan’s anti-corruption body accompanied by police officers served an arrest warrant.
The investigator, Azhar Mahmood Qazi, said Sharif was being arrested on money-laundering and corruption charges stemming from a sugar mill business several years ago. Sharif was accused of laundering $21.2 million, he said.
Soon after, Sharif was put on a flight to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and witnesses said he left that airport in a motorcade with sirens blaring.