- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 11, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) — President Pervez Musharraf defied Pakistan’s Supreme Court yesterday, sending commandos to the airport and tossing out a bitter rival hours after he returned from exile in hopes of a making political comeback and opposing the military leader.

The expulsion of Nawaz Sharif, who was ousted as an elected prime minister by Gen. 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, Mr. Sharif was charged with corruption and money laundering. Police took him away from the airport VIP lounge. Four hours after landing, he was on a special flight to Saudi Arabia.

His forced departure for the country where he had been exiled in 2000 scuttled his plans for a grand homecoming to campaign against Gen. Musharraf’s bid for re-election 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,” said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a political scientist at Lahore University of Management Sciences. “He is relying on strong-arm tactics, not the law and the constitution.”

The deportation drew criticism from the European Union, which noted the Pakistani Supreme Court ruled last month that authorities had no right to block Mr. Sharif’s return. The United States, which has valued Gen. Musharraf as an anti-terrorism ally since the September 11 attacks, had a more guarded reaction.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the deportation “runs contrary to the Supreme Court decision.” But he declined to comment further, saying it is a legal matter.

Mr. Sharif’s party appealed the deportation to the Supreme Court, which has issued a series of rulings challenging Gen. Musharraf’s dominance since his failed attempt in March to oust the court’s top judge ignited protests demanding democracy and civilian rule.

The president is also struggling against Islamic extremism that has spread from the Afghan border region, where pro-Taliban militants are gaining sway and al Qaeda is feared to have regrouped.

Protests were called for today, and a hard-line Islamic coalition allied with Mr. Sharif said it would join the demonstrations.

Not everyone condemned the deportation. The opposition party led by Banazir Bhutto, another exiled former prime minister with ambitions to return for parliamentary elections, adopted a neutral stance.

Her Pakistan People’s Party said the Supreme Court “rightly ruled” that Mr. Sharif had a right to return home but added that his reported 1999 agreement to avoid corruption charges by going into exile for a decade was a matter for him, those who helped broker the deal and Pakistan’s courts. Mr. Sharif’s renewed exile could help clear the way for Mrs. Bhutto and Gen. Musharraf to reach a power-sharing agreement.

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