Former PM Nawaz Sharif arrested and deported on return to Pakistan

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The Independent Online

General Pervez Musharraf appeared to be heading for a showdown with his country's highest court last night after deporting the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif just hours after he had returned to Pakistan.

Amid tense and chaotic scenes at Islamabad's airport, Mr Sharif was put on to a plane bound for Saudi Arabia, four hours after he touched down and was arrested on corruption charges. The former premier arrived in the city of Jeddah last night where he was reportedly driven from the airport in a convoy of vehicles.

The carefully co-ordinated gambit by General Musharraf at least temporarily removes one of his main political challengers as he desperately tries to find a way of securing another five years as president. But the decision to deport Mr Sharif – seemingly in defiance of a ruling by Pakistan's Supreme Court – sets him up for another confrontation with the country's top judge.

The precise details surrounding Mr Sharif's deportation were unclear last night. A member of the country's ruling party said, having been arrested and charged, the former premier was given the option of going to jail, an option he chose but which was ultimately refused by the government. A government spokesman claimed that given the two choices Mr Sharif "opted to go abroad".

Either way, shortly after lunchtime Mr Sharif had been given a visa for Saudi Arabia, placed on a bus and driven to a Pakistan International Airlines flight.

Mr Sharif's brother Shahbaz, who had also been due to return to Pakistan but decided to stay in London, said their party would be taking the matter to the Supreme Court. "[My brother] was abducted out of Pakistan by General Musharraf and his cronies," he said. "It's contempt of court, a case of clear abduction. It is a fatal blow to the Pakistani people's rights. We will not give up at all. It is our country and we will return."

Mr Sharif had left London on Sunday night and his plane arrived at a deserted Islamabad airport shortly before 9am local time, the authorities having imposed a five-mile security zone. As the flight landed, his supporters on board cheered and yelled: "Go Musharraf, Go!"

Pakistani troops surrounded the plane and for 90 minutes the aircraft and its passengers waited on the runway while authorities tried unsuccessfully to convince Mr Sharif to give up his passport.

Intense negotiations then followed with government officials. Mr Sharif, his aides and a gaggle of journalists were jostled inside the airport and Mr Sharif was taken to the VIP lounge.

There he was confronted by a senior investigator from Pakistan's anti-corruption body who issued him with an arrest warrant on money-laundering and corruption charges relating to a case involving a sugar mill. The case dates back several years.

The deportation plan, alongside the decision to detain hundreds of Mr Sharif's supporters, was one of several options considered by the government. Another option had been to arrest Mr Sharif and take him directly to jail, while a plan to keep him under house arrest was also considered. The government apparently took the view that the agreement Mr Sharif made in 2000 to spend 10 years in exile gave them the right to deport him. But the Supreme Court had ruled on 23 August that Mr Sharif and his brother had the "inalienable" right to return to Pakistan and the court's Chief Justice – Iftikhar Chaudhry, the man fired by General Musharraf only for the court to reinstate him this summer – warned the government not to hamper their return.

The government's actions resulted in widespread criticism. The former cricketer Imran Khan, leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, said: "This is not about Nawaz Sharif. Pakistan is being made a laughing stock in front of the whole world... This dictatorship is a cancer that is destroying this country's every organ."

Ali Dayan Hasan, a spokesman for Human Rights Watch, said: "Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have flouted international law, and Saudi Arabia has made itself party to the kidnapping of a Pakistani citizen in broad daylight."

The European Union said the Supreme Court's ruling should have been respected, but the US, General Musharraf's biggest backer, said it was "an internal matter".

General Musharraf's actions do not seem to have deterred another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto. A spokesman said Ms Bhutto still intends to return to Pakistan next month to challenge for the premiership.