Pakistan’s Sharif Vows Protest After Court Bars Him From Office

Khalid Qayum and James Rupert
February 25th, 2009
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Feb. 25 (Bloomberg) — Pakistan’s main opposition party called for nationwide protests after the Supreme Court barred its leader, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, from holding elected office.

Sharif, 59, blamed President Asif Ali Zardari, 52, for the ruling, reviving open confrontation between the country’s biggest parties as the government struggles against a Taliban insurgency and a slumping economy. Street protests began within hours of the ruling and Zardari’s government said its appointed governor would rule the province of Punjab by decree in place of Sharif’s brother, Shahbaz, whom the court also disqualified.

A three-judge panel disqualified Sharif because of a criminal conviction in 2000 that he says was engineered by political opponents. “Now the case is before the people,” Sharif said in a news conference. “The people of Pakistan will have to rise against such decisions to save Pakistan.”

Zardari’s office said that Punjab Governor Salman Taseer will administer the province, the country’s most populous, in place of the elected administration of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League. Hundreds of Muslim League supporters blocked roads and burned tires in Punjabi cities, local television broadcasts showed.

Today’s ruling is “a court decision and has nothing to do with the government,” Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party said in a statement. It urged the Sharifs “to control their supporters in the interest of democracy.”

Pakistan’s key stock index tumbled 5 percent, its biggest loss in 32 months.

“The market is worried and we wonder where the politicians are headed,” said Nasim Beg, chief executive officer of Arif Habib Investments Ltd, in Karachi.

‘Political Battles’

“Already, we are facing great economic difficulties and the challenge from extremists,” said Beg. “We do not need political battles outside the parliament.”

As the Obama administration presses Pakistan for more help in fighting the strengthening Taliban movement, the new confrontation risks distracting the government and creating a new opening for Islamist guerrilla groups, said Muhammad Waseem, a political science professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

U.S. policy makers’ concerns were reflected in a report to be issued today in Washington by the U.S.-based Atlantic Council. “Pakistan faces dire economic and security threats that threaten both the existence of Pakistan as a democratic and stable state and the region as a whole,” the council said.

The court ruling sets up a possible confrontation beginning March 12, when protest convoys backed by the Muslim League are to begin a four-day journey to Islamabad, the capital. The protest is to demand the restoration of Supreme Court judges who were sacked in 2007 by former military ruler Pervez Musharraf.

‘Not Surprised’

“We are not surprised at this decision,” Sharif told reporters. “These are the judges who salute dictators and they have given a gift to President Zardari. We have already said we do not accept these judges and these courts.”

The court ruling barred Sharif from elections based on his 2000 conviction, under Musharraf, for hijacking. The charge arose from Sharif’s order, as prime minister, to divert an airliner carrying General Musharraf into Pakistan just before an army coup that ousted Sharif.

The initial announcement of the court’s decision didn’t immediately make clear its basis for barring Shahbaz Sharif. A detailed ruling was expected later.
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