Former prime minister arrested upon return to Pakistan

Posted in Broader Middle East | 10-Sep-07 | Author: Salman Masood and Carlotta Gal| Source: International Herald Tribune

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, center, surrounded by aides and supporters aboard the airplane as he arrived in Islamabad, Pakistan. Sharif landed in Pakistan on Monday to lead a campaign to topple the country's U.S.-allied military ruler who ousted him in a military coup eight years ago.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan: Nawaz Sharif, a Pakistani opposition leader and former prime minister, was arrested here Monday, after he had flown to the Pakistani capital intent on leading an effort to oust the current president, General Pervez Musharraf.

Sharif was dragged out of a lounge in the Islamabad airport by several police officers. He was being taken to prison, according to Irfan Ilahi a district coordination officer for the Pakistan police.

But Dawn News, a local television channel, reported that Sharif was being deported to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

A court official representing the National Accountability Bureau, retired Lieutenant Colonel Azhar Mahmud Qazi, said that a police officer served an arrest warrant on Sharif, charging him with money laundering. The amount involved, the official said, was $1.273 billion rupees (about $31.5 million).

"I am amazed by this fabricated case," Sharif said as he was shoved through the crowd. "I'm amazed, I'm shocked."

Sharif, who was toppled in a bloodless coup by General Musharraf in 1999, was hoping to end his seven years in exile on Sunday when he boarded a Pakistan International Airlines flight from London. He was coming home to a country gripped by uncertainty, anticipation and anxiety about the government's response. Sharif's plane taxied and then sat on the runway here for about 90 minutes. But after negotiations with police, at about 11:00 a.m. Pakistan time, Sharif walked off the plane and onto a bus and was taken to a VIP lounge in the terminal where he waited to go through immigration.

"I think it is a dream come true after seven years to see your own country," he said, after getting off the plane. "It is a great feeling.

"Up to here it is fine," he added. "Beyond, I don't know."

The flight arrived here hours after police had sealed off the airport to prevent Sharif's supporters from greeting him. Clashes were reported on the roads leading to the airport, and about 100 police officers, some with weapons, surrounded the aircraft after it taxied to a stop away from the terminal.

A police officer boarded the aircraft and asked Sharif, surrounded by about 15 aides and 30 journalists, to disembark, but he refused, asking first for a guarantee that he would not be arrested or deported. He also asked for a bus to accommodate the entire group.

A member of the British House of Lords, Lord Nazir Ahmed, was present on the plane, and he negotiated with police to allow Sharif's safe transit into the terminal. Eventually, the police around the aircraft stood back and Sharif was able to get off the plane and onto a bus.

Sharif decided to return home after Pakistan's Supreme Court ruled in late August that he could. The ruling was seen as a severe setback for Musharraf, a strong ally of the United States, whose own grip on power is seen as increasingly tenuous.

Sharif departed Heathrow Airport in London on Sunday evening. "I'm very excited to be returning after seven years," he said, before boarding.

Asked what kind of reception he expected in Pakistan, he said, "I have a mission that is much more important than any reception — to restore democracy in the country and restore the rule of law. So it is a very noble mission that I have."

Before departing from London, Sharif told his brother, Shahbaz Sharif, who faces arrest in Pakistan on murder charges, that it was not necessary for him to return to Pakistan. Shahbaz Sharif faces five counts of murder in cases that were recently reopened by the Pakistani government, but had been planning to return to Pakistan on Sunday on a separate plane from London.

Nawaz Sharif served as prime minister twice in the 1990s, and leads an opposition faction of the country's governing party, the Pakistan Muslim League. He has consistently been one of the most vocal and defiant opponents of Musharraf, who is considered an important ally of the United States in its effort to curb terrorism.

Pakistani officials had been tight lipped about their strategy prior to Sharif's return. "I can't say," Sheik Rashid Ahmed, the minister of railways, told Dawn News, a television news channel.

Ahsan Iqbal, the information secretary of Sharif's political party, said Sunday that "Islamabad seems under siege." Officials of Sharif's party claim that more than 2,000 party workers have been detained in recent days. Government officials say the number is exaggerated.

Sharif's arrival plans had been seen as a catalyst to the anti-Musharraf campaign, analysts here say. Musharraf's popularity has decreased considerably in recent months as he tries to seek re-election after eight years in power, and there have been increasing calls for a return to democracy. He also is under pressure to step down as chief of the military in order to run for a new term.

Sharif, whose second term was marred by accusations of corruption and authoritarianism, is riding a wave of popularity for his tough stance against the military's role in politics.

In 1999, Sharif was sentenced to life in prison, but the next year, Musharraf arranged for Sharif, his brother and their families to live in exile for 10 years in Saudi Arabia.

Pakistan's attorney general, representing the government, presented documents showing that the Sharif brothers had promised to leave Pakistan and not engage in political activities for 10 years in return for their release from prison. But the chief justice ruled that the documents did not amount to an agreement because they were signed only by the Sharif brothers.

Sharif has denied that he agreed not to return to the country for 10 years. On Saturday, he said at a news briefing in London that the agreement was only for five years and he vowed to return home, saying, "My country needs me," news agencies reported.