Pakistani High Court Bars Opposition's Sharif, Brother From Contesting Elections

By Chris Brummitt
Associated Press
Thursday, February 26, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Feb. 25 -- Pakistan's Supreme Court banned the country's most popular opposition leader and his brother from contesting elections, igniting fresh political turmoil Wednesday as the nation battles rising al-Qaeda and Taliban violence.

The long-awaited decisions against former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother, Shahbaz, triggered anti-government demonstrations in several cities and a 5 percent drop in the main stock market on fears of street violence and protracted tensions among the country's ruling elite.

The court was hearing appeals against a ruling that barred Nawaz Sharif from contesting elections because of a criminal conviction dating to his overthrow in a coup by Gen. Pervez Musharraf in 1999. It was also considering allegations of irregularities in Shahbaz Sharif's election to a provincial parliament. It gave no details on the rulings.

Nawaz Sharif and his supporters accused President Asif Ali Zardari, the husband of slain former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, of exerting pressure on the court to issue the ruling to neutralize a political threat. Zardari did not respond to the allegations.

"The nation should rise against this unconstitutional decision and this nefarious act of Zardari," Sharif, who heads the country's largest opposition party, said in a televised news conference. Sharif said he opposed rioting but added: "If the people want to show their anger, who can stop them?"

Sharif urged people to join him in what was expected to be a large anti-government rally next month by lawyers whose protests in 2008 helped to drive Musharraf from power after years of U.S.-backed military rule and to usher in a democratically elected coalition under Zardari.

The prospect of Sharif and his supporters leading a campaign against Zardari will concern Washington, which had been hoping the political turmoil that marked Musharraf's final years was over, leaving Pakistan's rulers able to concentrate squarely on the threat posed by al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

The decision prevents Sharif from challenging Zardari in general elections in 2013 and -- of more immediate importance to the opposition -- means his brother cannot continue as head of the provincial government in the country's political heartland and most populous and wealthy region, Punjab.

"The Sharifs have been effectively thrown out of politics, and they are going to react," said Shafqat Mahmood, a prominent political commentator. Although the federal government is not in imminent danger, he said, "in the next three to six months, the entire political order will become very shaky."

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