In Pakistan, the Case of the One-Man Conspiracy

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A "conspiracy of one" may sound more than a little far-fetched, but the life sentence meted out to Pakistan's former prime minister may be the only way for that country's new military rulers to get rid of Nawaz Sharif. Nawaz was convicted Thursday on charges of hijacking and terrorism, and acquitted on charges of attempted murder and kidnapping, all related to an alleged attempt to stop an airliner carrying General Parvez Musharraf from landing, hours before last October's coup. More significant, perhaps, was the fact that all six of Nawaz's codefendants were acquitted. "The fact that he was the only one convicted shows the political nature of the case," says TIME New Delhi correspondent Maseeh Rahman. "It's ridiculous to suggest that the conspiracy for which he's been convicted could have been carried out by one person, and yet he's the only person convicted."

The fate of Nawaz, of course, presented General Musharraf with something of a dilemma. "A free Nawaz could be a threat to the general's regime, and even sending him into exile could still allow him to mobilize opinion against Musharraf," says Rahman. "But the world has changed considerably since the Pakistani military's last coup, in 1977, when they simply executed the overthrown civilian leader, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and the Pakistani establishment would have been foolish to think they could get away with a death sentence." That suggests Nawaz is likely to do some time, unless he manages to win his appeal. Good thing for the military that nobody seems to care too much. "There have been no outbursts of anger on the streets of the type you can expect when a popular leader receives an unfair sentence," says Rahman. "Although he was elected with a huge popular mandate in 1997, Nawaz's manipulation of the presidency, the courts and the military, combined with his failure to revive the economy, condemned him among both the upper classes and the ordinary people." And so while many Pakistanis may feel Nawaz was unfairly charged, they're not exactly rushing to his defense.