Backed Against a Wall

  • Share
  • Read Later
What goes around comes around. When Muhammed Nawaz Sharif was still Pakistan's Prime Minister, he set up a network of anti-terrorism courts to help bring criminals to speedy justice. Last week Sharif, who was pushed aside in a coup a month ago, was himself accused of conspiracy, kidnapping and hijacking. He will be tried in one of the same anti-terrorist courts he created. If found guilty, he could be sentenced to life in prison or even death. The military starts to enjoy the business of running things

The army ends the country's decade-long experiment in democracy, ousting a discredited civilian government but remaining quiet about its own plans to rule

The coup leader is a man of action

The army must give way to civilians quickly

Sectarian violence adds to Nawaz Sharif's list of woes (10/18/99)

Tensions rise anew with the shooting down of a Pakistani military plane and a reported retaliatory missile firing (8/23/99)

Gen. Pervez Musharraf details Pakistan's new government (10/18/99)

After grabbing power for the fifth time in 52 years, Pakistan's generals may put in place a civilian government sooner rather than later (10/22/99)
With the move against Sharif, the coup led by General Pervez Musharraf has suddenly taken a harsher turn. Last Wednesday a senior army officer filed a complaint accusing Sharif and seven others of crimes linked to events on Oct. 12, the day of the coup. It all began when Sharif dismissed Musharraf as army chief and tried to replace him with a loyalist. When Musharraf was returning to Pakistan from a trip he had taken to Sri Lanka, Sharif and his allies attempted to stop him. According to the complaint against them, they tried to prevent Musharraf's plane from landing at Karachi. Runway lights were turned off, barricades were set up and the plane was diverted to Nawabshah, a city in Sindh province, after an attempt to send it to India. After circling for nearly an hour, the Pakistan International Airways flight with Musharraf and some 200 civilian passengers was running dangerously low on fuel. Finally Musharraf's troops seized control of the airport. According to the military, the plane's fuel tanks were nearly empty when it touched down. Musharraf took over the country that night.

The complaint, which will likely lead to formal criminal charges in a court of law, wasn't unexpected. Musharraf has repeatedly emphasized his outrage over the attempted flight diversion. Circumstances were created which would have forced our plane either to land in India or crash, he said in a speech five days after the coup. Praise be to Allah that the plane landed safely when barely seven minutes of fuel was left.

Although the charges are unusual, few Pakistanis appear sympathetic to Sharif's plight. The ex-Prime Minister is so unpopular that many people have greeted the latest news with a shrug. It makes no difference to me, says Khalid Masih, a cleaner in Islamabad. Others seem quite happy to let the courts decide. Nawaz Sharif cannot have a valid objection to being tried in this category of courts, says Akaram Sheikh, a lawyer and former Sharif associate. He himself created them and had faith in their working.

Elsewhere, however, there are concerns about Sharif's fate. In Washington, a State Department spokesperson appealed to Islamabad to ensure due process of law. The situation in Pakistan dominated last week's Commonwealth meeting in Durban, South Africa. Last month, a Commonwealth delegation to Islamabad was denied a face-to-face meeting with the former Prime Minister, who remains in protective custody.

The Pakistan Muslim League, still reeling from the loss of its leader, decided to challenge the coup in the Supreme Court the day before the charges against Sharif were made public. The party now is scrambling to put together a legal defense for Sharif, who thus far has been denied access to his lawyers. Party leaders are not sanguine about his prospects. Says Raja Zafarul Haq, Sharif's former religious affairs minister and the party's spokesman: I feel very strongly there is no chance of a fair trial under the circumstances.

The military is also drawing up complaints alleging financial impropriety and corruption on the part of Sharif and his family. Immediately after the coup, Musharraf announced a one-month deadline for loan defaulters to pay their debts. Sharif and his family are believed to owe billions of rupees' worth of loans and are apparently eager to pay up. Newspapers carried a letter from Sharif's nephew requesting permission to clear the family's bank loans before the Nov. 16 deadline. It is virtually impossible for our family to pay back loans when our business centers are sealed, accounts frozen and we are under detention, the papers quoted the letter as saying.

The mood in Islamabad was unsettled last Friday after a series of blasts occurred near several buildings that house foreign operations, including the U.S. embassy. The explosions may complicate matters for Musharraf, who faces continuing criticism overseas for refusing to provide a timetable for the restoration of democracy. Even at home, some legal experts warn that the military government is making a mistake by focusing on the plane incident rather than financial impropriety. This charge can provide Nawaz Sharif with a fig leaf to hide his real misdeeds, says Islamabad lawyer Amna Paracha, who suggests Sharif may try to portray himself as a martyr like Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was hanged in 1979 by General Zia ul-Haq. After this case Sharif and his supporters have a cause to rally around. They will try to project him as another Bhutto. But Musharraf is a canny tactician, and this is just the opening round.