ISLAMABAD/LONDON (Reuters) - Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that former prime minister Nawaz Sharif can return home after seven years in exile in a decision he hailed as a victory against dictatorship.
Sharif, a two-time prime minister overthrown by army chief General Pervez Musharraf in a 1999 coup, has vowed to oppose a bid by President Musharraf for another term in office.
“This is a victory for democratic struggle. Dictatorship has lost, democracy has won and the constitution of Pakistan has won,” he told reporters in London.
“It is the beginning of the end of Musharraf,” he said, adding he would return as soon as possible to contest elections.
The timing of a return by Sharif could hardly be more awkward for U.S. ally Musharraf, who is expected to seek re-election from the national and provincial assemblies between mid-September and mid-October and hold parliamentary elections within months.
After the 1999 coup, Musharraf co-opted the rump of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML) to form his own political base, and analysts say that could splinter if Sharif were to return.
Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry told the court Sharif and his brother, Shahbaz, who is also a politician and was exiled with his brother in 2000, had an “inalienable right” to come back. Both brothers are in London.
Hundreds of Sharif supporters chanted “go Musharraf, go!” outside the court after the ruling.
The government said in comments carried by the state news agency the verdict would be respected.
“We will prove to the world that we abide by the law and constitution and believe in tolerance and fairness,” an unidentified government spokesman told the news agency.
Sharif was sentenced to life in prison on security and graft charges after he was overthrown, and Pakistan’s attorney general said Sharif might on his return face the jail term he avoided by leaving the country.
Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, another former prime minister in exile, are both hoping to take part in the general elections that Musharraf has promised will be free and fair.
“NEED FOR RECONCILIATION”
Musharraf, in comments broadcast on Thursday but recorded before the ruling, spoke of the need for reconciliation “with everyone” and the importance of stability for the sake of the economy. “It is the need of the hour,” he told a talk show.
But such comments are unlikely to allay fears Musharraf might impose a state of emergency, even though he has repeatedly ruled that out and vowed to abide by the constitution. His popularity has slumped since he tried to dismiss Chief Justice Chaudhry in March.
Pakistan’s main stock market has lost almost 5.5 percent this week on political worry.
The United States and other Western countries are likely to watch developments closely in a nuclear-armed ally seen as vital to efforts to end terrorism and bring peace to Afghanistan.
U.S. State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos told reporters the Sharif ruling was an issue for the Pakistani legal system and repeated a U.S. call for free and fair elections.
But Sharif said U.S. support for Musharraf was not consistent with its avowed principle of promoting democracy.
“I want the United States to support democracy and not a man who is holding a gun in his hand,” he told Reuters in an interview. “Why is it supporting uniformed tyranny in Pakistan?”
Once overthrown, Sharif went to Saudi Arabia after the government said he agreed to 10 years exile. But he denied any such agreement and filed a petition to secure his return.
Attorney General Malik Abdul Qayyum said if the agreement on the 10-year exile was considered void, Sharif was free to come back but could face the prison term he was sentenced to.
“The government will not be bound to remit his sentence,” he told Geo TV.
Sharif said Musharraf might be “fabricating” cases against him: “I will face anything ... I’m not scared of that.”
A spokeswoman for Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party welcomed the ruling. Bhutto has been negotiating with Musharraf on a power-sharing deal but Sharif has criticized her efforts and called on her to join the campaign to end Musharraf’s rule.
Additional reporting by Augustine Anthony in ISLAMABAD and Siddhartha Dubey in LONDON
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