ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistani Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry reaffirmed on Tuesday an earlier Supreme Court ruling that former prime minister Nawaz Sharif be allowed to return from exile, despite resistance from the government.
Chaudhry made the observation while adjourning until Nov. 8 a contempt hearing against the government for blocking the former prime minister’s attempted comeback last month.
Sharif, whom President General Pervez Musharraf ousted in a bloodless 1999 coup and later sent into exile, was blocked for several hours on his arrival at the international airport at Rawalpindi, the city next door to Islamabad, on Sept.10.
He was put on a flight to Saudi Arabia a few hours later.
“We find it appropriate to adjourn the case until Nov. 8. But we would like to emphasise that the judgment passed in Nawaz Sharif’s case is still holding the field and required to be implemented in letter and spirit,” Chaudhry said.
Several hundred supporters of Sharif’s faction of the Pakistan Muslim League staged a protest outside the court.
A spokesman for Sharif, Ahsan Iqbal, said the party leaders will meet this week to discuss when he can return.
“He (Sharif) is aiming to return in late November,” Iqbal said.
The government, according to diplomats, is also believed to be under pressure from Saudi Arabia to allow Sharif to return, particularly after another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, was allowed back from self-imposed exile on Oct. 18.
Musharraf is going through the shakiest period of his 8-year rule, and the court is also considering challenges to his eligibility to stand for re-election while still army chief.
Musharraf easily won the Oct. 6 vote in parliament, having vowed to quit the army as part of a transition to civilian-led democracy if he was given a second five-year term as president.
To shore up his own position and effect the transition, he granted an amnesty for politicians facing charges for corruption and other crimes in the 1990s, which allowed Bhutto to return.
The terms of the amnesty, however, did not extend to Sharif or his brother, Shahbaz Sharif, who lives in London.
Musharraf’s popularity began plummeting after he tried to oust Chaudhry, the country’s top judge, in March.
The Supreme Court reinstated the suspended judge in July, in a stunning decision to assert the independence of the judiciary in a country where judges have long had a history of doing military leaders’ bidding.
The court, now regarded as hostile to the president, has been hearing a petition holding the government in contempt for forcing Sharif to go back into exile when he tried to return.
The former prime minister’s supporters say he was forced back into exile, while the government maintains Sharif left of his own volition and should remain out of the country until December 2010 under the terms he agreed when he was freed from prison in 2000.
The Supreme Court had ruled in August that Sharif should be allowed to return to Pakistan unhindered.
The chief justice’s observation restated the court’s position, but did not amount to a fresh order for Sharif to be allowed back.