Cook warning over show trial for Sharif

The credibility of the Commonwealth was in jeopardy last night with diplomats in Durban engaged in frantic lobbying over the fate of Pakistan, suspended and facing expulsion, after its junta laid treason charges against the deposed prime minister.

The credibility of the Commonwealth was in jeopardy last night with diplomats in Durban engaged in frantic lobbying over the fate of Pakistan, suspended and facing expulsion, after its junta laid treason charges against the deposed prime minister.

As the Queen arrived in the South African port to open the biennial Commonwealth Heads of State Meeting today, Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, warned Pakistan against staging a show trial, and other diplomats urged the organisation to take a tough stance against the new regime.

Pakistan was suspended from the 54-nation body last month, after its prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, was overthrown in a coup. The Commonwealth was to demand a timetable from the junta for the return to democracy when news broke yesterday of the charges against Mr Sharif. He and seven others are accused of treason and kidnapping, which carry the death penalty.

Mr Cook, who addressed Commonwealth foreign ministers in Durban last night, cast doubt over the legitimacy of the charges against Mr Sharif. He said: ''The regime must respect the safety and legal rights of Nawaz Sharif and the other arrested ministers. If there is a genuine legal case it should be pursued through the due process of law.

"A show trial will do nothing to encourage the conference that the military genuinely intends to restore democracy.''

There is strong pressure within the Commonwealth to be tough on Pakistan. A West African diplomat said: "The Commonwealth needs to show its teeth. We have to prove we mean what we say when we condemn military dictatorships. If we do not [condemn Pakistan], our encouragement for a country like Nigeria, in transition to democracy, means nothing.''

British Foreign Office ministers have privately been critical of the half-hearted US condemnation of the Pakistani coup on 12 October. But many diplomats in Durban are concerned that excluding Pakistan - as opposed to maintaining its present suspension - could destabilise the country.

Tony Blair is to present a report on Aids to the conference, describing it as "deeply shocking." In the nine African countries most affected, life expectancy is dropping from 60 years to 40.

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