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Decks cleared for dictator vs deposed
Nawaz Sharif in London. (AP)

Islamabad, Aug. 23: Pakistan’s supreme court ruled today that former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif can return home after seven years in exile in a decision he hailed as a victory against dictatorship.

The stunning verdict was delivered by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who himself was reinstated through a historic judgment that dealt a body blow to President Pervez Musharraf.

Sharif, a two-time Prime Minister overthrown by Musharraf in a 1999 coup, has vowed to oppose a bid by the President 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 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.

Chief Justice Chaudhry told the court in Islamabad that 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 and stay in Pakistan.

The government should not obstruct their return, he said. Both brothers are in London. Hundreds of Sharif supporters chanted “go Musharraf, go!” outside the court after the ruling. The government said in comment carried by the state news agency that 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 said.

Musharraf, in comments broadcast today but recorded before the ruling, spoke of the need for reconciliation and said stability was also necessary for the sake of the economy. “There should be political reconciliation with everyone. It is the need of the hour,” he told a television talk show.

Musharraf on the talk show on Thursday. (AFP)

Musharraf said the talks with political parties is aimed at achieving the objective of reaching political reconciliation and national consensus.

The Pakistan President said what is required now is political stability, political reconciliation and national consensus on issues confronting Pakistan.

But such comments are unlikely to allay fears that Musharraf might impose a state of emergency, even though he has repeatedly ruled that out and vowed to abide by the constitution. Musharraf has seen his popularity slump since he tried to dismiss Chaudhry in March.

The US and other western allies are likely to watch developments closely in a nuclear-armed country seen as vital to efforts to end terrorism and bring peace to Afghanistan.

US state department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said the Sharif ruling was an issue for the Pakistani legal system and repeated a US call for free and fair elections.

Sharif was sentenced to life in prison on various charges after he was overthrown. He and his family later went to Saudi Arabia after the government said he had agreed to 10 years in exile.

Speaking at an interview, Sharif said Washington must actively promote democracy in Pakistan and shift its support away from Musharraf.

“America must support Pakistan. It should not equate Pakistan with Musharraf,” Sharif said at his London office. “It is being perceived that America is supporting one man against 150 million people in Pakistan.”

Sharif confirmed he would seek office again, for a third term as Prime Minister. “If the people of Pakistan elect me to serve the country, I’ll be honoured to do that,” he said.

The former Prime Minister said he would return to Pakistan soon, but gave no specific dates. A committee from his party, the Pakistan Muslim League, would meet in London in the next few days to decide on plans, he added.

Sharif said he had a cordial relationship with the US during his two terms in office, but warned that America must reconsider its relationship with Pakistan.

However, Sharif denied any such agreement and filed a petition in the top court seeking to clear the way for his return.

Asked about corruption charges he faces in Pakistan, Sharif said Musharraf might be“fabricating” cases against him: “I will face anything that he does against me. I’m not scared of that.”

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