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Exiled Pakistani Opposition Leader Plans Return


Former Prime Minister and leader of the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz Sharif is planning to return to Pakistan, ending his seven-year exile in Saudi Arabia. VOA's Barry Newhouse reports from Islamabad that the announcement follows an earlier, failed attempt to return.

Pakistan Muslim League spokesman Ahsan Iqbal says Mr. Sharif could return in a few days, but it is unclear whether it will be before Monday's registration deadline for candidates wishing to run in parliamentary elections set for January.

"Mr. Sharif is seeing the king of Saudi Arabia today and after his farewell meeting with him he will return in a few days to Pakistan to take part in Pakistan's politics, to lead his struggle for the restoration of democracy," he said.

General Pervez Musharraf deposed Nawaz Sharif in a coup in 1999. After he was convicted on corruption and other charges in 2000, Mr. Sharif was sentenced to life in prison, later commuted to 10 years in exile.

Since then, he has been an outspoken critic of General Musharraf, and is considered one of the most popular politicians in Pakistan.

Ahsan Iqbal insists Mr. Sharif has not spoken to nor struck a deal with General Musharraf and the former prime minister could be arrested when he returns. But Iqbal says he is confident Mr. Sharif will not be deported, as he was when he tried to return in September. Pakistani authorities have not said how they will respond if Mr. Sharif returns.

"We are not afraid of the consequences," said Iqbal. "Even if they put him in jail that will show to the world that General Musharraf is still scared of him and is not willing to provide a level playing field to all parties for fair and free elections."

It is unclear what Saudi Arabia's position is in the situation. General Musharraf visited the kingdom earlier this week, but officials released few details of the talks and it is not known if the visit was related to Mr. Sharif's status.

Meanwhile, Pakistan's Supreme Court ruled Friday that General Musharraf's decision to declare a state of emergency and suspend the constitution was legal.

On Thursday the court, made up of justices chosen by President Musharraf, dismissed the final legal challenges to his re-election. The move cleared the way for the president to honor his pledge to step down as army chief, possibly as soon as Saturday.

Opposition parties are discussing the formation of a broad alliance to oppose President Musharraf and push for a restoration of democracy. The parties have not yet decided if they will boycott January elections.