Pakistan's deposed PM escapes death sentence

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The Independent Online

Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan's deposed prime minister, escaped a death sentence yesterday but was sent to prison for life for terrorism and hijacking.

A court in Karachi found Mr Sharif guilty of refusing to allow a plane carrying the Pakistani army chief to land in Pakistan on 12 October. The mid-air stand off occurred as General Pervez Musharraf prepared to seize power. Mr Sharif's brother, Shahbaz, and five other alleged accomplices in the same case were acquitted.

"Have courage, have courage," Mr Sharif said, as his two daughters broke down after hearing the verdict. When a journalist asked for comment, he said: "Leave it to God. Leave it to God."

Mr Sharif remained calm when the verdict was read. His wife, Kulsoom Nawaz, showed no emotion either but their daughters sobbed openly. "Long live Nawaz Sharif," one of them chanted.

"This was definitely a politically motivated decision," said Zafar Ali Shah, one of the lawyers of Mr Sharif's Muslim League party and a member of the suspended parliament. "It is a heavy punishment. The original judgment was changed Thursday morning on orders from Islamabad. We will file an appeal against it in the provincial high court."

Pakistan's military government placed an indefinite ban on all political demonstrations when President Bill Clinton made a stopover in Pakistan on 25 March. Mr Sharif claimed the ban was imposed to prevent his supporters from protesting against the judgment.

The government filed charges of hijacking, terrorism, attempt to murder and abduction against the deposed prime minister, his brother and five other senior officials of the ousted government. All the accused pleaded not guilty.

Judge Rahmat Hussain Jafri declared Mr Sharif guilty of hijacking and terrorism but acquitted him on other two charges.

The military government claims that Mr Sharif ordered his subordinates to prevent a commercial flight from Colombo, Sri Lanka, from landing in Pakistan. The plane, which was bringing General Musharraf and 180 other passengers back to Karachi, had only eight minutes of fuel left when it finally landed.The prosecution had based its case on a confession by one of Mr Sharif's aides, Ameenullah Chaudhry, who headed the department of civil aviation in the previous government. Initially charged with Mr Sharif, the aide later testified against him.

In his summing up, thejudge said the aide admitted to the court that Mr Sharif had personally ordered him to "prevent General Musharraf's plane from landing inside Pakistan". He described Mr Sharif's action as an attempt to hijack the flight.

The judge recalled that the civil aviation authorities had parked fire engines on the runway and turned off the lights at the airport. If the plane had landed in such conditions "it would have endangered the lives of all the passengers". Since Mr Sharif was both prime minister and defence minister, he was "directly responsible for the actions taken by the civil aviation authorities".

Besides life imprisonment, the judge also fined Mr Sharif 500,000 rupees (£6,060) and ordered him to pay two million rupees (£24,240) as compensation to the passengers. If he fails to do that, he will have to serve an additional term of five years. The court also ordered the confiscation of his property.

Observers in Karachi said the former ruling party might find it difficult to mobilise public opinion against the army. "The Muslim League is not an opposition party. It has always worked with the army. It will find it difficult to work against it now," a commentator said.