/ 10 September 2007

Former Pakistani PM arrested, deported

Former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif was arrested and deported to Saudi Arabia on Monday within hours of arriving home from exile, vowing to end the rule of President Pervez Musharraf.

While with the deportation Musharraf has fended off the immediate challenge from a rival, the president is likely to face a backlash from many Pakistanis already sick and tired of what they see as his dictatorial rule and rising prices.

The country, an important United States ally, faces weeks of uncertainty as Musharraf attempts to secure another term in a presidential election in the national and provincial assemblies between September 15 and October 15.

A general election is due at the end of the year.

Sharif’s supporters said they would fight the government in the courts and politically.

”For all practical purposes there is now martial law in Pakistan and Pervez Musharraf is the chief martial law administrator,” said Sharif party spokesperson Siddiq Farooq.

”We are going to take this issue up with the Supreme Court as well as with the people of Pakistan,” he said.

The Supreme Court said last month Sharif had the right to return and the government should not try to stop him.

The European Union said the ruling should have been respected. In Washington, a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council said Sharif’s treatment was an internal matter, while urging fair elections. US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte is due for scheduled talks this week.

Authorities had imposed a major clampdown before Sharif flew in from London, detaining many leaders, spokesperson and activists of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League party, stopping supporters from travelling to the capital and sealing off Islamabad airport.

Sharif’s party was unable to mobilise mass protests but groups of supporters clashed with police as they tried to make their way to the airport to greet their leader. Five people were hurt in an exchange of fire but protesters later dispersed.

Sharif was arrested after a melee in an airport lounge where he and his supporters were taken after a tense 90-minute stand-off with authorities on board the aircraft he arrived on.

He was deported to Saudi Arabia about four hours after arriving. Saudi sources confirmed he arrived later in Jeddah.

‘Great feeling’

Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azim Khan said Sharif had been given the choice of prosecution on a corruption charge or leaving: ”He opted to go abroad.”

Sharif was dogged by accusations of corruption during his two terms as prime minister in the 1990s. An anti-corruption court last month reopened three cases against him.

Another former prime minister in exile, Benazir Bhutto, is also expected to try to come home. But she is in talks with Musharraf on a pact with the president, whose popularity has slumped since he tried to fire the Supreme Court chief in March.

An aide to Bhutto said she would likely return in October.

”She has got to go back and lead the party into the elections,” said spokesperson Wajid Hassan.

Sharif’s return from seven years in exile was always going to spark a confrontation with Musharraf, who ousted Sharif in 1999 and cast him into exile the following year.

Musharraf sent Sharif to Saudi Arabia under what the government says was an agreement that he stay in exile for 10 years. In return, he avoided a life sentence on hijacking and corruption charges.

Before his arrival, authorities had detained about 4 000 supporters and party leaders, as well as leaders of an allied religious alliance, party officials said.

Police said 250 ”troublemakers” had been picked up. — Reuters