Pakistan's deposed PM waits to hear if he will be hanged

Coup aftermath - A military court will today decide whether Nawaz Sharif lives or dies

After spending nearly six months in a Karachi prison, Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan's deposed prime minister, will discover today if he is to be executed.

The anti-terrorism court in Karachi, in which Mr Sharif has faced trial on charges of hijacking and attempted murder, delivers its verdict today. The maximum penalty is death by hanging.

Mr Sharif's trial has excited widespread concern outside Pakistan and, if the death sentence was to be passed, Pakistan would face becoming an international pariah. As another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, put it in London a few days ago: "Nawaz may have been a bad ruler, he may have misgoverned, but you do not hang a person for that. It is wrong to hang prime ministers." Ms Bhutto's father, the late prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was hanged by Pakistan's last military dictator, Zia ul-Haq, exactly 21 years ago.

The charges were brought by General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's new military ruler. General Musharraf forced Mr Sharif out of office on 12 October after Mr Sharif had sacked him as the Army's Chief of Staff when he was on an official visit to Sri Lanka.

Mr Sharif was accused with his brother Shabaz and five other senior members of his government. The former prime minister and his alleged accomplices have pleaded not guilty to all the charges. Mr Sharif sacked General Musharraf and appointed a new army chief soon after General Musharraf's plane took off from the Sri Lankan capital.

The prosecution accused Mr Sharif of ordering his subordinates to prevent the commercial flight bringing General Musharraf home from landing anywhere in Pakistan. There were 180 other people on board.

The military government says the plane had only eight minutes of fuel left when it landed in Karachi after troops loyal to General Musharraf seized the city's main airport. General Musharraf toppled Mr Sharif shortly after his aircraft touched down.

The prosecution has demanded the death sentence for Mr Sharif and his codefendants because in Pakistan hijacking is punishable by death. A law Mr Sharif introduced before he was oustedbinds the anti-terrorism courts to apply the maximum sentence in any case they hear.

Responses to Mr Sharif's plight within Pakistan have been as muted as the reaction to the coup. Outside his immediate family - his wife Kulsoom Nawaz has recently attacked the military regime bitterly - Pakistanis seem happy to wait to see how the cookie crumbles.

President Bill Clinton publicly appealed to General Musharraf to show clemency during his brief visit to the country last month. Last July, Mr Clinton persuaded Mr Sharif to withdraw Pakistani troops from Indian positions in the mountains above the Kashmiri town of Kargil. The action ended a two-month mountain war between India and Pakistan, both of which possess nuclear weapons. The neighbours have fought three fully blown wars since their independence from Britain in 1947.

During his recent tour of India, Mr Clinton said he felt the Pakistani army had toppled Mr Sharif because he had agreed to order Pakistan's military withdrawal from the Kargil heights. Later, when Mr Clinton met General Musharraf during his brief stopover in the Pakistani capital on 25 March, he urged Pakistan's military ruler to spare Mr Sharif.

In Pakistan's constitution, the country's president has the right to confirm or commute a death sentence. The incumbent, Muhammed Rafiq Tarar, was Mr Sharif's president, too, but he is widely regarded as a puppet who will follow instructions. Addressing a press conference after Mr Clinton's departure, General Musharraf admitted that the US President had asked him to be lenient to Mr Sharif. He is said to have assured Mr Clinton that he was not "vindictive".

Although both governments have been silent on this issue since the visit, Western diplomats in the Pakistan capital say that General Musharraf had assured Mr Clinton that the military would not hang Mr Sharif.

A senior Western diplomat in Islamabad said: "Clinton made it very clear to the Pakistanis that Sharif's trial is also a test case for Pakistan. The international community will view a death sentence as a rude rebuff to its appeals for returning Pakistan to democracy."

Another diplomat said that hanging Mr Sharif would "turn Pakistan into an international pariah. Nobody would want to deal with them any more. After all, no country in the world can be allowed to keep hanging its prime ministers."

In April 1979, and despite international appeals for clemency, Pakistan's former military ruler General Zia hanged the prime minister Mr Bhutto on murder charges. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the same year deflected the West from punishing Pakistan.

"But the situation has changed now," says a Western diplomat. "The West does not need Pakistan any more. If the court awards a death sentence to Sharif, it will have a very adverse impact on Pakistan's international image."

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