ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, (AP) -President Gen. Pervez Musharraf came under fire Wednesday for the expulsion of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, with newspapers dismissing the government’s claim that he returned willingly to exile.
Sharif flew in from London on Monday to challenge the already troubled re-election plans of Musharraf, who toppled Sharif’s government in a 1999 bloodless coup. Authorities halted him at the terminal and he left a few hours later for Saudi Arabia.
Sharif had said he was ready to risk jail by coming home. But officials said Tuesday that when they offered him a choice between arrest on corruption charges or exile, he chose the latter.
“No one is going to quite buy this argument,” the Lahore-based Nation newspaper wrote in its Wednesday editorial. “For him to come to Pakistan only to be jetted to Saudi Arabia makes no sense. It is clear that he was sent against his will.”
The manner of Sharif’s departure is already the subject of a complaint to the Supreme Court from the two-time ex-premier’s supporters.
The court, which is emerging as the main threat to Musharraf’s hold on power, ruled last month that Sharif had an “inalienable” right to enter his homeland. It is unclear when it might rule on the latest case.
As well as deepening Musharraf’s legal problems, Sharif’s removal could deepen his unpopularity and reinforce impressions that he is an authoritarian leader. It also could undermine the legitimacy of legislative elections due by January.
“Unless the government provides even chances to all politicians in exile to come back to the country and play their role to establish real democracy instead of usurping their rights, no one can believe the sincerity of the rulers,” the Urdu language Nawa-I-Waqt daily said.
Musharraf also faces rising Islamic extremism recently underlined by a spate of deadly suicide attacks blamed on pro-Taliban militants based near the Afghan border.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte arrived in Pakistan on Wednesday for talks on counterterrorism and other aspects of American-Pakistani relations, the U.S. Embassy said.
Opposition leaders have vowed to mount street protests to unseat the government. However, demonstrations on Tuesday in several cities were small and passed without incident.
Opposition to Musharraf has grown since his failed attempt in March to fire the Supreme Court’s chief justice.
However, it has been weakened by the decision of Benazir Bhutto, another exiled former premier, to enter talks with Musharraf that could lead to them sharing power.
An agreement could help defuse expected legal challenges to Musharraf seeking a fresh five-year term from lawmakers and quash legal cases pending against Bhutto, who left the country in 1999 in the face of corruption charges.
The presidential vote is due between Sept. 15 and Oct. 15 and the election commission said Tuesday that the schedule will be announced within days.