Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf faced mounting political pressure yesterday as former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, the man he ousted in a coup, vowed to return in "weeks, not months" to contest elections.
The Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that two-time prime minister Sharif can come home from exile in Saudi Arabia and London, a landmark verdict he hailed as "a defeat for tyranny."
It threatens to deepen Pakistan's instability, with Musharraf, a key US ally, already under fierce domestic and international pressure not to stand for re-election as president-in-uniform in the months ahead.
He is also facing growing al-Qaeda-linked violence that has brought a wave of bloody extremist attacks in the capital and regions close to the Afghan border.
"It is a matter of weeks and not months that Sharif will be in Pakistan," Siddiqul Farooq, spokesman for Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party, said.
Sharif said on Thursday from London that he would come back to his homeland, where he served as prime minister from 1990 to 1993 and again from 1997 until his ouster in 1999, as soon as possible.
General elections, the first for five years, are due by early next year.
The party spokesman rejected speculation that Sharif might delay his return for fear the government may reopen criminal cases against him, saying Sharif trusted the country's newly-independent judiciary.
Sharif and his family went into exile in 2000, a year after Musharraf ousted him and had him sentenced to life in prison on hijacking, tax evasion and treason charges.
The government said the charges still stand. "Legally they have to complete the punishment," law minister Wasi Zafar said.
Farooq said any reconciliation with Musharraf, which the president had recently hinted at amid a political crisis in the South Asian nation, was "out of the question."
Musharraf is set to seek re-election next month or in October in his dual role as president and army chief. The Constitution, however, says he should quit his military role by the end of the year.
Pakistani newspapers welcomed the verdict, with the News daily saying in an editorial it "has the potential to severely dent the president's re-election plan."
It said it could also hurt a possible deal between Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto, another former prime minister who has also said she wants to return to stand in the elections.
The Supreme Court delivered a further blow to the government yesterday when it ordered the parliamentary affairs minister, Sher Afgan Niazi, to appear on a charge of contempt after he criticized the Sharif verdict.
Afgan "uttered remarks which are considered contemptuous," court spokesman Arshad Munir said.