Sharif loses appeal on hijacking conviction

KARACHI, Pakistan, AP

The provincial Sindh High Court Monday upheld former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s conviction on a hijacking charge and accompanying life sentence, but overturned the guilty verdict on a charge of terrorism.

The panel of three judges also denied a prosecution appeal which sought the death penalty for Sharif rather than the life sentence.

Sharif will appeal to the Supreme Court, his last avenue of appeal, said his wife, Kulsoom Sharif, who has been crisscrossing the country championing her husband’s cause.

Her head covered in the traditional head scarf, Mrs. Sharif said the unsuccessful appeal was not a surprise.

“We don’t expect justice,” said Mrs. Sharif. “The judges are helpless in the present situation,” a reference to the military rule in Pakistan.

The judges were divided in their ruling, with one of the three, Judge Sermat Jalal Usmani, ruling in favor of Sharif. But the majority upheld Sharif’s hijacking conviction and life sentence, which is sufficient under Pakistani law.

In his ruling Usmani said there was evidence only of abduction which would carry a three-year jail term.

The majority ruling also upheld the 500 million rupee (US$8.3 million) fine against Sharif, as well as the loss of all his property.

Sharif was convicted on April 6 of terrorism and hijacking charges and sentenced by a special antiterrorist court, set up during his regime, to two concurrent life terms. One of the two terms was overturned by the provincial Sindh High Court.

A life sentence in Pakistan is a minimum of 25 years in jail.

Meanwhile the prosecution had appealed the jail term demanding the death penalty, which is allowed under the law.

Prosecution lawyer Raja Quereshi said no decision has been taken on whether to appeal to the Supreme Court.

The charges against Sharif stem from an incident last Oct. 12 — the day the army seized power in Pakistan, throwing out Sharif’s elected government and putting the former prime minister in jail.

Sharif was charged with refusing to allow the commercial airliner returning Pakistan’s army chief Gen. Pervez Musharraf to land in southern Karachi. The aircraft, with more than 200 people on board, including 40 students of a U.S.-government-run school, eventually landed after the army took power. When the aircraft landed there was barely seven minutes of fuel remaining.

Sharif’s six codefendants in the case were acquitted. The prosecution also lost its appeal to overturn their acquittal.

“The defense argued the case well. It was a lengthy argument. We hope that Nawaz Sharif is eventually acquitted,” said Shah.

Sharif is currently in prison in a 16th Century Attock Fort in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier province where anticorruption courts have been set up to hear charges of corruption and abuse of power against the former prime minister and several of his former colleagues.

Sharif was thrown out of power charged with intimidating institutions, threatening provincial harmony and corrupt practices.

Sharif has vehemently denied the charges and accuses Musharraf of staging the coup to protect his position as army chief.

Sharif had dismissed Musharraf while he was on a state visit to Sri Lanka, appointing a junior general to replace him as army chief of staff. The military revolted before Musharraf’s aircraft could return to Pakistan and seized control of the country.

Musharraf immediately took power when his aircraft landed.

Since then his military government has arrested dozens of prominent politicians belonging to all the major political parties in Pakistan, as well as bureaucrats and businessmen in an attempt to clean up corruption that has become endemic in this poor country of 140 million people.

The army has promised to return Pakistan to democracy by 2002 in line with a Supreme Court ruling which said Musharraf was justified in throwing out the civilian government but must return Pakistan to democratic rule within three years of his takeover.