ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – President Gen. Pervez Musharraf ordered police commandos to the airport Monday and sent a bitter rival packing just hours after he returned from exile in hopes of making a political comeback and opposing the military leader.
The expulsion of Nawaz Sharif, who was ousted as an elected prime minister by Musharraf in a 1999 bloodless coup, could deepen the general’s unpopularity and undermine the legitimacy of upcoming elections.
Not long after he arrived from London to cheers from supporters accompanying him on the plane, Sharif was charged with corruption and money-laundering and bundled away by police from the airport VIP lounge. Four hours after landing, he was on a special flight to Saudi Arabia.
Pakistan’s deputy information minister, Tariq Azim, told the British Broadcasting Corp. that Musharraf’s government obeyed a ruling by Pakistan’s Supreme Court to let Sharif enter the country, but he said Sharif chose to go back into exile to avoid facing trial.
“It was a choice given to him that either he goes to a detention center and be detained and tried, or he goes and completes his 10-year (exile) agreement that he has signed with the Saudi government,” Azim told the BBC, according to an except provided ahead of its broadcast Monday night. “No hindrance or obstacle was placed upon his entry into Pakistan. He came here and he was given every assistance.”
Sharif had said he was willing to risk going to prison if it meant advancing his fight to restore a fully democratic government.
“We are not scared of anything – prisons and jails – we have gone through all that,” he said before boarding his flight from London to Islamabad.
After Sharif was ousted by the coup, he reportedly agreed in 2000 to go into exile in Saudi Arabia and stay out of Pakistan for a decade in return for avoiding corruption charges.
The unceremonious departure scuttled Sharif’s plans for a grand homecoming to campaign against the U.S.-allied Musharraf’s bid for election to a new presidential term amid growing public resentment over military rule.
“Musharraf has probably taken a decision to twist any law to do what he can do to stay in power. This is the politics of survival,” Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a political scientist at Lahore University of Management Sciences, said soon after Sharif left. “He is relying on strong-arm tactics, not the law and the constitution.”
Sharif’s departure drew criticism from the European Union, which noted the ruling last month by the Pakistani Supreme Court barring authorities from blocking Sharif’s return.
The United States, which has valued Musharraf as an anti-terrorism ally since the Sept. 11 attacks, was more guarded.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said deportation “runs contrary to the Supreme Court decision.” But he declined to comment further, saying the “matter is still under legal consideration.”