Musharraf, Bhutto Reach Tentative Deal to Let Her Return With Amnesty

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 5, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Oct. 5 -- President Pervez Musharraf and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto have reached tentative agreement on a deal that is designed to give his election more credibility and allow her to return to Pakistan without facing corruption charges, officials on both sides said Friday.

The deal, which followed months of seesaw negotiations, was expected to be formally announced later Friday, the eve of a planned presidential vote in the national and provincial assemblies.

Musharraf has the support he needs to win a new five-year term, but Bhutto's party had threatened to join other opposition groups in resigning from the assemblies in protest. Such a move would further erode the credibility of a vote that is already being questioned because Musharraf is choosing to have his tenure extended by assemblies that are about to expire. Under the deal, Bhutto's party members will either abstain or vote for their own candidate, but will not step down.

In return, the government has agreed to grant amnesty to Bhutto and other politicians who have outstanding corruption charges dating to 1999 or earlier, but have not been convicted. The amnesty clears the way for Bhutto to return from exile on Oct. 18, after eight years abroad, and compete in parliamentary elections slated for late 2007 or early 2008. Bhutto, who twice served as prime minister in the late 1980s and 1990s, has said that she wants to win back her old job.

On Thursday, Bhutto told reporters in London that although the deal with Musharraf was not finalized, she was optimistic.

"We expect there will be no obstacle in the path of my return," she said.

Musharraf, meanwhile, told Dawn News on Thursday night that he believed there was space for Bhutto in Pakistani politics.

"In the process of national reconciliation, the People's Party and she have a role to play," he said.

The United States has been quietly facilitating the negotiations, hoping that Musharraf and Bhutto -- both considered moderates -- can join forces to battle a rising tide of radicalism in the country's northwest.

The amnesty deal apparently does not include former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who returned from exile last month only to be deported four hours later. He was convicted on charges in 2000, and government officials say that those convictions still stand.

For opponents of Musharraf, there is still a chance to derail the vote, although it is a slim one. The Supreme Court is expected to rule Friday on a petition to delay the election until the court can hear a challenge to Musharraf's eligibility as a candidate. But the court already ruled last week Musharraf should be able to run, and the judges are not expected to reverse course now.

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