Nirupama Subramanian

All eyes on ex-Premier’s return

ISLAMABAD: All eyes are on the former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif’s planned return to Pakistan, but the Government is playing every card it has to stop him.

On Sunday, Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid said on several television channels that Saad Hariri, son of the assassinated Lebanese leader and billionaire businessman Rafiq Hariri, had told Mr. Sharif that he should not return home.

The Hariri family has close associations with the Saudi royal family and the Sharifs, and the late Hariri, one time Prime Minister of Lebanon, was the “bridge” between Riyadh and Islamabad for the release of Mr. Sharif from prison and his exile to Saudi Arabia in 2000, the Minister said.

He said Mr. Sharif met the younger Hariri in London, where the Lebanese businessman told him that a pledge was a pledge, and he should not return to Pakistan until 2010, when the 10 years end. “It’s not going to be easy for Nawaz Sharif to return to Pakistan. The verdict of the Supreme Court is a legal and constitutional one, but there is also a moral compulsion here, and Mr. Sharif is bound by that,” Mr. Rashid said on Geo TV.

The Supreme Court said last week an “undertaking” signed by Mr. Sharif not to return to Pakistan that was produced by the Government in court, had no legal value and could not be called an agreement, as no other party has signed it, nor did it bear the signatures of any witnesses.

Asked if Mr. Hariri’s message to Mr. Sharif was at the behest of the Saudi government, the Railways Minister, who has emerged as a main voice of the Government in recent days, refused to elaborate and said “some things are best left unsaid.” Another report on Geo, quoting an Organisation of Islamic Conference official of Pakistani origin Mohammed Faisal said a “global power” was investigating whether alleged links between the Sharif brothers with Osama bin Laden were still active.

On Saturday, President Musharraf who earlier called for a “grand national reconciliation” and urged everyone to put the past behind and “forgive and forget”, is reported to have told a meeting of ruling party legislators that Mr. Sharif would be thrown in jail the moment he lands.

He is also reported to have compared his coming confrontation with Mr. Sharif to a boxing match, and said “victory belongs to the boxer with the stronger punch.”

The President said the Sharif brothers were trying to sabotage an agreement with the Saudi government, and he would consult the Saudis about this broken pledge.

The departure of Attorney-General Malik Qayyum for Saudi Arabia has led to speculation that he may be taking a message on the Sharif issue from Gen. Musharraf. But Mr. Qayyum denied this. Much of Pakistan’s political action is now shifting to London.

A delegation of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) is leaving on Tuesday for the British capital “to finalise plans” for the Sharifs return. Newspapers reported that National Security Adviser Tariq Aziz, who is said to have brokered the negotiations between Gen. Musharraf and Pakistan People’s Party leader Benazir Bhutto, flew to London on Friday, to try and save the “deal” between the two.

Gen. Musharraf’s chief of staff Lt. Gen. Hamid Javaid is also reported to have gone to London for “backchannel negotiations” with the Sharifs.