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Benazir Bhutto Remains Barred from Pakistani Elections - 2002-09-13


In Pakistan, a court has rejected former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's appeal against decisions barring her from contesting next month's parliamentary elections.

A high court in Ms. Bhutto's home province of Sindh upheld the Election Commission's earlier decision barring her from contesting the polls. Election authorities cited new laws enacted by the military government that ban those convicted of crimes from seeking public office.

Ms. Bhutto lives in self-imposed exile overseas. She has been convicted in absentia for failing to appear in court to answer corruption charges related to her time as prime minister in the early 1990s. Ms. Bhutto says the charges are baseless.

Her political party condemned Friday's court ruling, which effectively ends her chances of running in the elections. One supporter in the courtroom shouted, "Shame! shame!" after the verdict came down, and he was quickly sentenced to six months in jail for contempt of court.

Raza Rabbani, secretary-general of Ms. Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, said, "This the worst form of pre-poll rigging that the regime is indulging in, that the leader of the largest political party in Pakistan is being debarred from contesting the elections." Mr. Rabbani said the government fears Ms. Bhutto's popularity, so it is trying to keep her out of politics.

In a recent interview, Ms. Bhutto told VOA she will continue her struggle to stage a political comeback, even if she cannot be a candidate. "I have been prime minister twice. I have very little desire to be prime minister a third time." But at the same time, I find it very difficult to turn my back on a situation, where I feel my country and my people are threatened. I think I can play a role, and I want to play that role, for peace, for democracy and for development."

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf says Ms. Bhutto will go to jail, if she returns to the country. The military leader has drawn criticism for his recent constitutional changes, which extended his rule for five years. President Musharraf insists the October elections will be free and fair, and will restore what he calls real democracy in Pakistan.

On Thursday, an anti-corruption court sentenced Ms. Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, to seven years imprisonment for corruption and abuse of power. Mr. Zardari has been in jail awaiting trial since his wife's government was dismissed in 1996 on charges of misrule and corruption.

Pakistan election authorities earlier barred another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, and his family members from running in the elections.

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