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Pakistan's Bhutto Prepares to Return Home

The political turmoil that has gripped Pakistan for weeks could take several more turns this week, with key hearings in the nation's Supreme Court and the expected return of exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. VOA's Barry Newhouse reports from Islamabad.

Allies of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto are preparing a grand welcome for her expected return on Thursday. Supporters of her Pakistan People's Party are plastering posters and billboards across the southern city of Karachi, where her flight will land.

"What we are contemplating is the largest-ever reception that any leader in Pakistan would be getting," said Latif Khosa, a PPP legislator.

For many Pakistanis, Ms. Bhutto is a symbol of the democratic rule that ended when General Pervez Musharraf seized power in a coup in 1999, even though she was not prime minister at the time.

Although she had been facing corruption charges from her days as prime minister and has lived in self-imposed exile, Ms. Bhutto remains a powerful political force and critic of military rule.

But some political analysts say an amnesty deal brokered with President Musharraf undermines her democratic credentials. The government has dropped corruption charges dating from 1986 to 1999 against Ms. Bhutto and other politicians.

Ayesha Siddiqa, a political analyst in Islamabad, says the amnesty is part of a power-sharing deal with President Musharraf.

"I'm very fond of the PPP, but the problem that a lot of people have with this kind of deal making is that it will absolutely remove pressure from all of the political leadership to become accountable, to have transparency and to become more answerable to the general public," said Siddiqa.

Ms. Bhuttos' supporters say the deal has not undercut her credibility, and they claim that the negotiations led to President Musharraf's pledge to step down as army chief later this year.

Pakistan's Supreme Court will rule on the constitutionality of the decision to drop the corruption charges. President Musharraf has asked Ms. Bhutto to delay her arrival until the legal issues are decided, but she has refused.

The justices will consider on Wednesday whether Mr. Musharraf was eligible to run for president earlier this month while he was still head of the army.

Last month, the government deported former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as he tried to enter the country. Mr. Sharif went into exile after President Musharraf took power.

Although Mr. Sharif's return to Pakistan failed, it appears to have boosted his popularity.

Recent opinion polls show about 36 percent of voters thought Mr. Sharif should lead the country, compared with 28 percent for Ms. Bhutto and 17 percent for Mr. Musharraf. Mr. Sharif's supporters say he still plans to return to Pakistan.

On Wednesday, the court also considers a petition disputing Mr. Sharif's deportation.

Ayaz Amir, a columnist with the Dawn newspaper in Islamabad, says this is the first time in Pakistan's history the courts have played such a prominent role in the nation's politics.

"This is the new thing which has emerged in Pakistan," said Amir. "The courts, they are asserting themselves and Musharraf is wary and the establishment - the government - is afraid."

If the court rules against Mr. Musharraf in his presidential eligibility case, it could invalidate his presidential election and throw Pakistan's politics into further turmoil.