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Pakistan: Former Prime Minister Bhutto Barred from Contesting Election - 2002-08-30

Election officials in Pakistan have barred former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto from contesting parliamentary elections on October 10. They cited new laws enacted by the country's military rulers that bar those convicted of crimes from seeking office.

Benazir Bhutto has been convicted twice this year for failing to appear in court to answer corruption charges. The allegations are related to her time as prime minister in the early 1990s.

On Friday, election officials in her hometown, Ratto Dero, rejected Ms. Bhutto's nomination for a seat in the National Assembly, saying she is a convicted offender.

Ms. Bhutto's lawyers call the decision a "serious setback" for the democratic process and say they will appeal the decision.

President General Pervez Musharraf has recently enacted new, controversial laws as part of his efforts to prevent Ms. Bhutto's return to Pakistani politics. She has challenged the election laws in the high court of southern Sindh province. The court is expected hear the case on September 11.

President Musharraf is adamant, sometimes to the point of angry outbursts, that Benazir Bhutto not be allowed back into politics. He spoke about the issue last week at a news conference in Islamabad.

"A person who has been convicted and a person against whom there are 12 charges, you want her to stand for elections?" he asked. "Or, you don't think that they have looted and plundered this nation? Or, is your view that this nation does not know it, and they condone it? Is your view that - is your view that the nation condones their loot and plunder? Is that your view?"

Benazir Bhutto, who lives in self-imposed exile overseas, says that corruption charges against her are baseless. She spoke with VOA earlier this week.

"I deny those charges. I say they are politically motivated with a view to eliminate my leadership and crush the Pakistan People's Party," she said.

Ms. Bhutto says President Musharraf is targeting her because he fears her popularity.

The rejection of Ms. Bhutto's candidacy comes as a surprise for political observers, since, on Thursday, election officials accepted the nomination papers of another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. Mr. Sharif was tried and convicted of hijacking and corruption, after being overthrown by President General Musharraf in October 1999. Mr. Sharif and his family were exiled to Saudi Arabia in December 2000.