Pakistan's Supreme Court on Friday acquitted former prime minister Nawaz Sharif of hijacking charges, stemming from the military coup against his government in 1999, paving the way for his return to electoral politics.
Sharif had been banned from office by a lower court after being found guilty of hijacking the then army chief General Pervez Musharraf's plane in 1999. Sharif, the chief of the main opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N party, had appealed against his conviction by an anti-terrorism court after the deposed judiciary led by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry was restored by the government in March.
Justice Nasir-ul-Mulk, who headed the five-member bench, announced that the charges against Sharif had not been proved and his appeal had been allowed.
The apex court also said that there was not enough evidence against Sharif. The Sindh High Court had also upheld the anti-terrorism court's conviction of Sharif in the case. The apex court annulled the high court's decision in the case. The anti-terrorism court had given Sharif a life term and barred him from electoral politics. Shortly after the court's verdict, Sharif and his brother Shahbaz Sharif had gone into exile in Saudi Arabia.
In October 1999, Sharif had ordered the diversion of an aircraft, which was bringing Musharraf back to Pakistan from a foreign trip, from Karachi airport to Nawabshah airport in southern Sindh. Musharraf claimed the aircraft was running low on fuel and could have crashed. He accused Sharif of trying to hijack the aircraft and the matter was taken up in the anti-terrorism court.
Sharif, who was ousted by Musharraf in a military coup, returned to Pakistan in late 2007 but was unable to return to electoral politics due to his conviction. The setting aside of the verdict will enable him to contest polls and hold elected office.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani congratulated Sharif on his acquittal by the Supreme Court. In a message from Egypt, where he has gone to attend the Non-Aligned Movement summit, Gilani termed the apex court's verdict a victory for democratic forces. Ahead of his first meeting with Sharif in nearly eight months, President Asif Ali Zardari felicitated the PML-N chief on his acquittal.
In a statement, Zardari said the verdict further opened the door for Sharif's return to electoral politics. He said it was a step in the direction of ensuring a level playing field to all political leaders and parties and would strengthen the democratic process.