Court returns Sharif to power in Pakistan: Chief justice says President Ishaq Khan acted illegally

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The Independent Online
NAWAZ SHARIF, the former prime minister of Pakistan, was returned to power by the Supreme Court just five weeks after being dismissed by the country's President, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, on accusations of corruption and terrorising his political foes.

For the first time in Pakistan's modern history, the Supreme Court defied a president's near-imperial powers to dissolve the National Assembly and the elected government. Chief Justice Nasim Hasan said: 'The President's action was illegal and unconstitutional.'

Before the 10-1 verdict was announced, Mr Hasan said that in dismissing the Prime Minister, the President had acted 'in a fit of anger'.

Armed police ringed the white marble, half-finished courthouse in Islamabad, keeping back a crowd of Mr Sharif's supporters who awaited the verdict. When the decision was announced, they cheered. Thousands of other jubilant Pakistanis gathered on the streets of Islamabad and Lahore, Mr Sharif's home town, when the decision was broadcast by state radio.

Since he was ousted, Mr Sharif has journeyed across Pakistan, pleading his innocence and trying to rally voters for the elections set by the President for 14 July, which are now cancelled. 'I congratulate the whole nation for this victory,' said a jubilant Mr Sharif, as he emerged from the Faisal mosque to give thanks for his answered prayers. 'God has given us justice.'

After Mr Sharif was removed on 18 April, the President named a caretaker prime minister, Balakh Sher Mazari, to preside until the elections. Mr Mazari is now removed, having accomplished little.

Khaled Anwar, the Prime Minister's defence attorney, said that the President had toppled the government and the assembly in a 'personal vendetta' against Mr Sharif, who initially had been the President's pampered protege. Mr Sharif enraged his mentor earlier this year by challenging his right to pick a new army chief.

The court verdict is a severe blow to the 79-year-old President, a stubborn but honest bureaucrat, who has ruled Pakistan since 1988 when the former dictator, Zia ul-Haq, died in a mysterious plane crash. Mr Sharif's supporters last night were calling for Mr Ishaq Khan's resignation after the court's stinging reversal.

Despite his age, the President is a dogged fighter, and it is doubtful that he will step down. He may, however, be pushed to do so by Pakistan's army. Pakistani generals have often plotted coups against politicians and each other. But in this latest feud between the President and the Prime Minister, the army has sided obediently with Mr Ishaq Khan.

The army gave assurances that it would respect the court's findings and not impose martial law, according to some news reports from Islamabad.

Instead of resigning, the beleaguered President may try to remove Mr Sharif in another manner. By recruiting the Prime Minister's political enemies, such as Benazir Bhutto, head of the Pakistan People's Party, and rebels from within Mr Sharif's own Pakistan Muslim League, the President may push for a confidence motion as soon as the National Assembly reconvenes today. In a possible vote, Mr Sharif might not scrape by. And if that happens, elections will once again loom.

Ms Bhutto last night rushed from her Karachi home to the capital, Islamabad, to meet party advisers. The court decision staggered her nearly as much as it did the elderly President. With her husband sitting in the caretaker cabinet and the President doing his best to humble Mr Sharif, Ms Bhutto stood an excellent chance of winning the elections.

(Photograph omitted)