ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Supporters of former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif petitioned the Supreme Court on Tuesday saying their leader was illegally deported, and setting up a showdown between the court and the government.
The Supreme Court ruled last month that two-time prime minister Sharif had an “inalienable right” to come home and the government should not try to stop him.
Authorities deported Sharif on Monday hours after he returned from seven years in exile, vowing to end the rule of President Pervez Musharraf, who is preparing to seek another term.
The court is already seen as hostile to army chief Musharraf, who tried unsuccessfully to fire its top judge in March.
Pakistan, an important U.S. ally, faces weeks of uncertainty ahead of a presidential election due by October 15 and a general election expected around the end of year.
“Mr Nawaz Sharif was abducted and we are going to proceed against those who were involved in this crime,” Khawaja Mohammad Asif, a senior official in Sharif’s party, told Reuters at the court after filing a petition on Sharif’s behalf.
Despite a mixed record as prime minister, Sharif’s popularity has soared for ruling out talks with the unpopular Musharraf, who has refused to give up his army chief post.
Musharraf ousted Sharif in a 1999 military coup, accusing the prime minister of trying to kill him by refusing landing rights to an airliner he was on, even though it was short of fuel.
The following year, Sharif was sent to Saudi Arabia as part of what the government says was a deal that Sharif would stay in exile for 10 years.
Analysts say Sharif’s treatment is not expected to spark big protests — his party failed to draw huge crowds to welcome him home on Monday — but the fall-out in the courts could be Musharraf’s biggest problem.
“I don’t think there will be large-scale protests but now the question is more of legal and moral propriety,” political analyst Nasim Zehra said.
“These are the issues which are now very critical and they will decide the direction of Pakistani politics. These are the challenges faced by General Musharraf.”
Sharif himself clashed with the Supreme Court during his rule. He was also dogged by accusations of corruption during his two terms in the 1990s. An anti-corruption court last month reopened three cases against him.
Government officials said Sharif, who flew in from London, had been given a choice of prosecution or leaving, and opted to leave. His party denies that.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch denounced Sharif’s treatment and urged Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to let him go home.
“General Musharraf has brazenly flouted international law… violated Pakistan’s constitution and defied a direct ruling of Pakistan’s Supreme Court,” Ali Dayan Hasan, the group’s South Asia researcher, said in a statement.
Newspapers — which have enjoyed more freedom under Musharraf than under Sharif — also condemned the government.
The English-language News said Sharif’s treatment was “an act of pure and utter desperation by a government that seems to be now operating very much in panic mode.”
Another former prime minister in exile, Benazir Bhutto, is also expected to try to come home. But she is in talks with Musharraf on a power-sharing pact.
An aide to Bhutto said on Monday she would likely return in October to lead her party in general elections.
The United States, which was mildly critical of Sharif’s deportation, has urged Musharraf to find ways of cooperating with Bhutto. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte is due for scheduled talks this week.