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Ousted prime minister wins right to return

Associated Press Writer

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Nawaz Sharif, head of a powerful Pakistani political party that wants to oust embattled President Pervez Musharraf, vowed to return quickly after the Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the former prime minister can come back from exile.It was yet another setback for Musharraf, and Sharif immediately turned up the heat in a growing public clamor for an end to military rule by calling on Washington to support Pakistan as a country – not just the general.”It should not equate Pakistan with Musharraf,” Sharif told The Associated Press at his London residence. “It is being perceived America is supporting one man against 160 million people in Pakistan.”Musharraf has been struggling in his effort to get another presidential term, seeing his attempt earlier this year to fire the Supreme Court’s chief judge touch off widespread rallies calling for democracy and then having the court reinstate the justice.The military leader also is facing intense pressure, and disenchantment, from Washington, which is pushing for Pakistan to crack down on Islamic extremists battling NATO troops in Afghanistan.A return by Sharif, a fierce critic of Musharraf, the man who deposed him as prime minister in a bloodless coup eight years ago, will further complicate life for the president, analysts said.”It’s a quantum leap forward in the march toward democracy,” said Talat Masood, a former army general turned political analyst.”It’s a great setback to President Musharraf and the way he was thinking, and puts him further on the defensive,” Masood added. “It’s becoming extremely difficult for him to face all these challenges at the same time.”Underlining the general’s recent setbacks, the Sharif ruling was announced by Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, the Supreme Court chief justice who Musharraf tried to fire.Sharif, a charismatic 57-year-old conservative secularist who served twice as prime minister and authorized Pakistan’s first nuclear bomb test in 1998, has “an inalienable right to enter and remain in the country,” Chaudhry said in the brief ruling.The return of Sharif and his wife should not be “hampered or obstructed” by the authorities, the judge said.As Sharif’s chanting supporters celebrated outside the court by dancing and slaughtering six goats, government officials said they would respect the ruling. But a top government lawyer also hinted that Sharif could face unspecified legal action if he came home.Sharif and Benazir Bhutto – another banished former premier with strong popular support planning a comeback – insist Musharraf must let them compete in year-end parliamentary elections if the vote is to be considered democratic.They are also urging Western governments to stop relying on the military strongman, arguing that he has failed to deliver against the Taliban and al-Qaida.At a London news conference broadcast live on Pakistani private television channels, Sharif hailed the court ruling as “a victory for democracy and a defeat for dictatorship.”Speaking later to the AP, Sharif said he had a cordial relationship with the U.S. while he was in office, but he warned that Washington must reconsider its relationship with Pakistan and not give its support just to Musharraf if it wants to quell religious militancy.”In any democracy you can find such menaces, but if a democracy fights terrorism, ultimately it will win the battle,” he said. “But if one individual is fighting the battle (he) cannot win.”Sharif said he hoped to return soon but gave no specific time frame. He said he planned to re-enter politics and hoped to win a third term as prime minister.Washington has made clear that its war on terrorist groups takes priority over the speed of democratic reform. However, it appears to be growing impatient with Musharraf and has been prodding him toward a power-sharing deal with Bhutto and her political party.Sharif’s supporters have accused Bhutto, whose secular Pakistan People’s Party shares Musharraf’s mostly liberal social agenda, of selling out by negotiating with the general.State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos declined to comment directly on Sharif’s case, but said U.S. officials wanted “a strengthening of Pakistan’s democratic traditions.””We’ve made it clear that we want to see Pakistan succeed as a moderate, modern, democratic country, led by the choice of the Pakistani people,” he said.While Musharraf had repeatedly vowed to prevent either Sharif or Bhutto from returning, he recently began talking of the need for political reconciliation.In a question-and-answer session recorded before Thursday’s ruling and shown later on state TV, Musharraf was asked whether he would let the two former prime ministers come home.”There is a requirement for forgiving, forgetting the past, and political reconciliation is the need of the hour. This is what I am striving for,” he said.Musharraf and Bhutto, who left Pakistan in 1999 to avoid arrest on corruption charges, are engaged in talks about forming an alliance that could see him stay on as president while giving up his post as army chief.On TV, Musharraf said only that he was “aware of domestic and international concern on the issue of my uniform.”Lawmakers are to elect a president by mid-October, just a few months before parliamentary elections in which Sharif and Bhutto say their parties will make gains if the voting is fair.Sharif has been in exile in Saudi Arabia and London since 2000, when he was released from jail after signing a pledge not to return to Pakistan for at least 10 years.Government ministers dodged questions Thursday about whether the government would seek to prevent Sharif from competing in the elections.But the attorney general, Malik Mohammed Qayyum, suggested that the “concessions” granted to Sharif for his release from jail were nullified by the Supreme Court’s ruling.”Let them come and the law will take its own course,” Qayyum said.—Associated Press writers Munir Ahmad and Alisa Tang in Islamabad and David Stringer in London contributed to this report.


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