Sharif `death warrant' as ally turns on him

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The Independent Online
THE CHANCES of the deposed Pakistani prime minister living to a ripe old age appeared to have lessened considerably yesterday, when a co-defendant in the army junta's hijacking case against him agreed to turn state witness in exchange for immunity.

Muhammad Nawaz Sharif was overthrown six weeks ago in a bloodless coup by the army chief General Pervez Musharraf. Within days, the general had accused Mr Sharif of having endangered his life, the lives of his staff and some 200 passengers on a flight from Sri Lanka, when the Prime Minister tried to prevent the plane landing at Karachi airport.

General Musharraf claims the plane had only enough fuel for seven more minutes in the air when the army seized the control tower at Karachi and gave permission for it to land on the night of 12 October.

The Karachi control tower is said to have ordered the plane to fly on to an airfield at a place called Nawabshah, where forces loyal to Mr Sharif were ready to take the general (whom Mr Sharif had just sacked) into custody. Learning by radio what had happened on the ground, General Musharraf countermanded that order.

Two weeks ago the "First Information Reports" against Mr Sharif and several others were filed, alleging treason, hijacking and criminal conspiracy, among several other heinous offences. Treason and hijacking both carry the death penalty.

During brief court appearances this week in Karachi, Mr Sharif has roundly denied any wrongdoing. But his death warrant may have been signed yesterday by his most significant co-defendant, the former director general of the Civil Aviation Authority, Aminullah Chaudry. Mr Chaudry was said by the chief prosecution lawyer to have agreed to testify against Mr Sharif in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

Raja Qureshi, one of three prosecutors in the case, said Mr Chaudhry had asked for a pardon and now enjoyed the status an "approver" in the trial - under Pakistani law, an accomplice who gives evidence against another prisoner.

Mr Sharif's three other co- defendants appeared with him before the judicial magistrate, but Mr Chaudhry did not. With him in the prosecution's pocket, it looks as if the general is bent on doing away with Pakistan's elected prime minister.