/ 25 February 2009

Pakistan court bars opposition leader from office

Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Wednesday barred opposition leader Nawaz Sharif from elected office, raising the prospect of bitter political conflict in the country as its shaky government struggles against rising Islamist militancy.

The court also upheld a challenge against the election of Sharif’s brother, Shahbaz Sharif, to a seat in the Punjab Assembly, meaning he cannot continue as head of the provincial government in the country’s most populous and wealthy region.

The court was hearing appeals against a ruling barring Sharif from contesting elections because of a prior criminal conviction. The judges were also considering allegations of irregularities in Shahbaz’s election to the provincial parliament.

The long-awaited decisions will deepen a growing rift between Sharif, one of the country’s most popular politicians who heads its largest opposition grouping, and the pro-Western coalition government under President Asif Ali Zardari.

Sharif, who has twice been Pakistan’s prime minister, has already announced his support for what is expected to be a large rally next month by lawyers whose protests over the past two years helped drive former president Pervez Musharraf from power.

His supporters accused Zardari of influencing the Supreme Court to neutralise a powerful rival.

In a sign of Sharif’s influence and power, visiting United States officials frequently travel to his house in the Punjab to meet him, the most recent being Richard Holbrooke, the American envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The prospect of Sharif and his supporters leading a campaign against Zardari will concern Washington, which wants the country to put the political turmoil of Musharraf’s final years behind it and concentrate squarely on the threat posed by al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

US officials also fear Pakistan’s lawless border regions are being used to plan terrorist attacks on the West.

The country of 180-million people is also up against a punishing economic crisis and is trying to soothe tensions with fellow nuclear-armed nation India over last year’s terror attacks on Mumbai, which were allegedly carried out by Pakistani militants.

The verdicts triggered a 5% drop in Pakistan’s benchmark stock index on expectation of political tensions and possible street violence. Sharif supporters demonstrated in several town and cities.

Some torched tires, but there was no immediate reports of any violence.

”Asif Ali Zardari had a hand in the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif, and today’s decision is also according to his wishes,” Akram Sheikh, a lawyer for Sharif, told reporters after the verdict.

Zardari’s spokesperson was not immediately available for comment.

The decision against the two men does not change the balance of power in Pakistan’s national Parliament, but could trigger a destabilising power struggle in Punjab, where Sharif’s party currently governs in coalition with that of Zardari.

”To me this is not a judicial decision, it is a political decision which will lead the country toward further political instability,” said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, professor of political science at Lahore University of Management Sciences.

Nawaz Sharif returned from exile in 2008 seeking to contest elections, but was disqualified by a court because of a prior criminal conviction on terrorism and hijacking charges stemming from the 1999 coup in which he was overthrown by Musharraf.

The judge on Wednesday was ruling on an appeal against that court ruling. Various parties had brought a case alleging irregularities in Shahbaz’s campaign for office in Punjab. The court did not immediately release details of its verdict.

The decisions came as top Pakistani officials, including the foreign minister and army chief, were in Washington as part of the Obama administration’s efforts to draw up a new strategy for Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The government has been criticised by Nato and Western countries for offering a peace deal to militants in northwestern region of Swat. On Tuesday, militants there announced an indefinite ceasefire in support of the initiative, which allows for the imposition of a version of Islamic law there. — Sapa-AP