Looking haggard and thinner, deposed prime minister Nawaz Sharif today made his first public appearance since being ousted by the army Oct. 12 and denied hijacking and attempted murder charges brought against him by the military government.
"The whole democratic system has been hijacked," Sharif said, according to people who attended a 20-minute hearing in a Karachi courtroom, which was closed to the public. Asked how he had been treated during nearly five weeks in military custody, he reportedly said he had suffered "everything except physical torture."
Sharif, 53, who is being held in a military garrison outside the city, was transported to and from the courthouse under heavy guard. Military authorities have accused him of ordering a plane carrying Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's army chief, and more than 200 other passengers, to land outside Pakistan while it was approaching Karachi on Oct. 12 with only minutes of fuel left.
According to military officials, the army was quickly ordered to secure Karachi airport and the plane was able to land safely. Sharif, who had announced that Musharraf would be fired while the general's plane was still airborne, was placed under house arrest along with his key aides. That night Musharraf announced he was taking power.
The former prime minister, who will be tried before a special, fast-acting Anti-Terrorist Court that he established last year, could face the death penalty if convicted on hijacking, conspiracy and treason charges. But Musharraf has reassured foreign diplomats and others that Sharif will be given a fair and open trial.
Pakistan is still haunted by the memory of 1979, when Gen. Zia ul-Haq, the country's military ruler, hanged former prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto on murder charges that defenders said were trumped up. Pakistanis close to the army said this week that Musharraf, despite his personal stake in the case, does not want to revive the specter of military vengeance.
Defenders of Sharif, including some leaders of his Pakistan Muslim League Party, suggest he had been framed by Musharraf, with whom he had strong disagreements. They suggest that military officials invented the hijacking scenario to justify ousting Sharif after Musharraf learned he had been fired.
"There is no case at all. We feel this is the result of a decision to frame someone and give the impression he had created a crime," said Raja Zafir ul-Haq, a close former aide to Sharif and a Muslim League politician in Islamabad. "My fear is that he will be convicted without a fair trial. When an army chief is involved, it weighs very heavily on the minds of the witnesses."
In court appearances this week, the pilot and an airport radar technician testified that they had received orders not to let the plane, a commercial flight from Sri Lanka, land in Karachi. Capt. Sarwat Hussain, chief pilot of Pakistan International Airlines Flight 805 that day, testified Thursday that he was ordered to divert the plane outside Pakistan. He said that later, when he was finally told he could land, there was only seven minutes of fuel left.
In a statement that was part of the criminal charging document, an army colonel stationed in Karachi described the events of Oct. 12 in detail and asserted that Sharif and his four aides had committed "heinous criminal offenses including high treason" as part of a conspiracy to murder Musharraf "and other innocent passengers" in order to undermine the army command.
Questioning the accuracy and motivation of such statements, supporters of Sharif have pointed out that it took the army a full month to submit the charges against him. They also argued that the army seizure of Karachi airport and other facilities occurred too rapidly to have been a response to a sudden emergency, but rather smacked of a premeditated plot to justify unseating Sharif.
"In the past month, an atmosphere has been created in the public and the press that Nawaz committed a great crime against humanity," said Raja Zafir ul-Haq. "So far Sharif has had no chance to defend himself, or even to speak. By any standards, they have already been unfair to him."
Sharif's relatives abroad have also raised an international appeal in his defense, arguing that the proceedings against him are inherently unfair and protesting against the current house arrest of his family members in Pakistan, who have not been allowed to see him. Today, the judge before whom Sharif appeared said his relatives would be allowed to see him under restricted conditions.
"I appeal for your assistance to ensure the application of internationally recognized human rights law for the safety and security of my father," Sharif's son Hasan said today from London, where he graduated from college this week. "I was so looking forward to a family get-together, but now I feel so alone and helpless."
Some Muslim League leaders, while appealing for lenient treatment for Sharif, said they had been told by people close to his co-defendants that the orders to divert the plane had come from the prime minister, who had undermined most institutional obstacles to his power and was determined to get rid of Musharraf, his last remaining challenger.
As a result of Sharif's downfall, his party has split into factions--supporters who are banking on his return to public life and dissidents who believe it is time to move on and to bring more democratic norms to a party that has been governed autocratically under Sharif for years.
No matter what happens to him in the criminal trial in Karachi, Sharif's political career seems doomed and his legal future uncertain at best. Military officials, who have established a new financial "accountability bureau," allege that Sharif owes millions of dollars in taxes, unpaid loans and unjust profits. This week they charged him under a new accountability law that carries a 14-year prison sentence and 21-year ban from public office for deliberate loan defaults, tax evasion and corruption.
Constable reported from Lahore; special correspondent Khan reported from Karachi.