Musharraf Foe Gets Just 4 Hours Back Home

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 11, 2007

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan, Sept. 10 -- Pakistani authorities deported former prime minister Nawaz Sharif on Monday just hours after he returned from seven years of exile to take on his nemesis, President Pervez Musharraf.

Sharif, 57, had vowed to lead a campaign to restore democracy in Pakistan and end Musharraf's eight-year rule. His return Monday sent waves of anxiety through the president's inner circle and was covered minute-by-minute on Pakistani television. Four hours after he arrived, though, Sharif was back in the air and on his way to Saudi Arabia, where he has spent much of his time in exile.

The decision to refuse entry to Sharif is likely to spark a confrontation between Musharraf and Pakistan's Supreme Court and have far-reaching implications for the president as he struggles to hold on to power. The court ruled last month that Sharif had "an inalienable right" to return to Pakistan, and lawyers said Monday that his deportation violated the court's order.

The increasingly assertive court is due to decide in coming weeks whether Musharraf is eligible to run for the presidency again when his current five-year term expires this fall, or whether the constitution prohibits his candidacy because of his role as army chief. Many legal analysts here expect him to be disqualified.

Sharif, who had promised for months to return to Pakistan in time to compete in upcoming parliamentary elections, boarded a Pakistan International Airlines flight in London on Sunday evening. By 8:45 a.m. Monday, he was on the ground at Islamabad airport, in the nearby city of Rawalpindi. But almost as soon as the plane landed, there were indications that his return would not go smoothly.

Thousands of Sharif's supporters were expected to welcome him, but nearly all were kept away by extraordinary security measures that included roadblocks, mass arrests and the jamming of cellphone signals. Sharif was instead greeted by dozens of police officers, who swarmed the tarmac, and officials who entered the plane and demanded that he turn over his passport. When he refused, there was a tense standoff that lasted nearly two hours.

Sharif was eventually allowed to leave the plane and enter an airport lounge. More negotiations followed, but they ended abruptly when Sharif was grabbed by security officers and hustled back onto the tarmac. By Monday evening, he was once again in exile, having been flown to the Saudi city of Jiddah. He did not make any public statements.

"We thought we could talk like gentlemen," said Amjad Malik, Sharif's attorney. "But this shows a clear picture of the law and justice situation in Pakistan."

Government officials had warned Sharif in recent weeks not to return, saying he would face arrest or deportation. They had even enlisted the support of the Saudi royal family, which pressured Sharif to honor the agreement he struck in 2000 to stay out of Pakistani politics for 10 years in exchange for avoiding a life prison sentence in Pakistan.

Tariq Azim Khan, Pakistan's state information minister, said Sharif was sent back to Saudi Arabia for the remaining three years of his exile deal. Khan said Sharif was given a choice of flying to Saudi Arabia or facing corruption charges in Pakistan, and he chose exile.

But that account was sharply disputed by Sharif's supporters, who said the former prime minister had been forced back into exile. They promised to challenge the deportation at the Supreme Court on Tuesday. Public protests were also expected.

"This is not the way to run the country. This is the way to anarchy," said Zafarullah Khan, a top leader of Sharif's faction of the Pakistan Muslim League. "As a citizen of Pakistan, I feel very sad today."

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