A Musharraf Foe's Aborted Return

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Lefteris Pitarakis / AP

Former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, surrounded by aides and supporters, refuses to disembark from a plane on his arrival in Islamabad, Monday Sept. 10, 2007

He didn't even set foot out of the airport. Nawaz Sharif, two-time Prime Minister of Pakistan, had planned a triumphant return to his native soil nearly seven years after choosing exile over a life term in prison, a choice imposed on him after a coup by then military chief Pervez Musharraf. Despite a landmark Supreme Court ruling last month that the former premier could not legally be denied a return to his home country, Sharif was bundled out of the Islamabad Airport first class lounge by a phalanx of plainclothes police officers and elite special forces soldiers clad in tight black T-shirts. While the Pakistani government has not yet confirmed his deportation, intelligence officials say he was placed on a plane departing for Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. "He never even got his passport stamped," says Amjad Malik, a British lawyer who was with Sharif as he negotiated with government officials inside the lounge. But something as insignificant-sounding as an entry stamp will have enormous implications for Pakistan, and President General Musharraf, in the days to come. "This is not just defiance of the Supreme Court," says Supreme Court Advocate Ifitkhar Gilani, "but defiance of the constitution itself. It is negative in every way. I'd like to know what they [the government] think they gained."

Over the weekend, Sharif's supporters had planned welcome-back parties even as they steeled for a showdown with security forces. Pundits had predicted mayhem in the streets. Many, including those closest to Sharif, expected the authorities to arrest him upon arrival on recently reopened charges of money laundering and corruption — charges his party leaders call "trumped-up and patently false." Tossing him in jail upon his arrival would not have been a popular move, but it would have been legal. Few thought Musharraf would be willing to risk the unfettered return of a once-loathed leader who has come to represent a renewed call for democracy in Pakistan. But fewer still thought Musharraf would actually defy the Supreme Court order by not letting him in the country at all. "This is a shame, a stain, a disgrace," says analyst Brig. Gen. Talat Masood. "It shows the weakness of the government. Every action that Musharraf is taking is making things more difficult for him." While small riots have already erupted across Pakistan over Sharif's deportation, the more significant battles will now be fought in the Supreme Court.

Even a year ago a Supreme Court injunction would have caused barely a pause in Pakistani politics, but everything changed on March 9, when Musharraf attempted to dismiss an increasingly independent Supreme Court chief justice who threatened to derail the general's bid for another term as President. After an enormous show of support from the Pakistani people, and massive rallies by the country's black-suited lawyers, Chief Justice Iftikhan Chaudhry was reinstated on July 20. Since then the feisty Supreme Court has ruled against the current government on several issues, including Sharif's right to return and a spate of disappearances linked to the government's notorious security agencies. In just a few days the Supreme Court is set to rule on the constitutionality of Musharraf's nomination for another term as President while still retaining the office of Army Chief. Musharraf's latest move against Sharif is unlikely to win him any more judicial favor. Even if his petition is successful, at this point it is unlikely that Musharraf has enough support in Parliament to win the presidential election, which by law must be held sometime in the next 35 days. Sharif's deportation was "the death spasm of the general's rule," says Gilani. "He can't survive any more as a political entity. This is the logical conclusion of what happened on July 20."

Musharraf's tenure may be drawing to a close, but his strength is still quite visible. Over the weekend thousands of Sharif's supporters were detained or thrown in jail on specious charges. Last night the secretary general of his party was taken in by security forces, despite having set up a safe house in anticipation of such an occurrence. And a convoy of party leaders setting out for the airport to greet Sharif was stopped less than two miles from its departure point by scores of police armed with riot shields and metal-tipped bamboo staves. Parliamentarian Tamina Dultana, vice president of Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League party, jumped out of her Land Cruiser and charged the police, shouting, "Do or die, we will go to the airport." Within seconds her pink headscarf was swallowed by a sea of uniformed officers. As party leaders swarmed out of their cars to shout slogans they were picked up one by one by apologetic police officers who politely allowed them to finish their impromptu press conferences first. "We were ordered to arrest all the party leaders," admitted one police officer after he helped shove the party's information secretary, Ahsan Iqbal, roughly into a truck. When asked why, he just shrugged.

But it wasn't just party leaders who were detained. Khurshid Ahmed Khan, a flour mill owner dressed in a simple shalwar kameeze, had started out from Peshawar on Sunday with a party of some 800 supporters. By the time they reached the airport, the party was down to one. All the others had been stopped at barricades blocking the roads into the capital. The only reason he was able to get to the airport, he says, was that he had had the foresight to buy an outgoing air ticket that day and was, thus, technically a passenger. He called himself a "stealth welcoming committee," but admitted that he would be able to provide little of the fanfare his group had anticipated. Carrying a banner would have been too risky. "How could I have brought it?" Khan asks. "I was searched every time. I can chant or shout slogans when he comes out." He never got the chance. After more than four hours of waiting, word trickled out that Sharif had been sent to Saudi Arabia. The crowd dissipated and Khan wandered forlornly away, trying to find a car that could take him back to Peshawar.