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Sharif Appeals for Return to Pakistan

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Pakistanis are mauling over the latest twist in their political crisis -yesterday's deportation of Nawaz Sharif. He's the prime minister that President Pervez Musharraf ousted eight years ago. Sharif flew to Pakistan from London, but spent less than five hours in the country, leaving his supporters behind to fight his case. So far, they haven't made much of a showing.

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As NPR's Philip Reeves reports, demonstrators in Islamabad today were outnumbered by police.

(Soundbite of protest rally)

PHILIP REEVES: This is all the outrage Pakistan's opposition parties could muster in Islamabad today - a couple of dozen people waving placards, denouncing the government for deporting Sharif. One reason for this feeble turnout is clear. Leaders of Sharif's party were arrested shortly before the former prime minister flew in, most are still detained.

The arena for protest wasn't the streets, but here, Pakistan's Supreme Court. The court now commands great respect in Pakistan - unlike the country's political leaders - after reinstating the chief justice Musharraf tried to sack. Sharif's people, this morning, came to the court to ask it to defy Musharraf again. Sharif's nephew, Hamza, said they had filed two petitions.

Mr. HAMZA SHARIF (Nawaz Sharif's nephew): One is contempt and the other is to instruct the authorities to take me and Nawaz Sharif back to Pakistan.

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REEVES: The Sharif camp believes Musharraf blatantly violated a Supreme Court ruling, that Sharif had a right to return and mustn't be obstructed by the government. The government says Sharif chose to go rather than face corruption charges. It sent its man to court today - Attorney General Malik Qayyum.

Mr. MALIK QAYYUM (Attorney General, Pakistan): The question here is whether he has gone off his own or was he forced to do that. That is the issue.

REEVES: Hamza Sharif doesn't have much time for that argument.

Mr. SHARIF: It is rubbish. It is a blatant lie.

REEVES: Deporting Sharif has further damaged Musharraf's attempt to represent himself as an enlightened moderate. His position is weak. The general seems to be on a collision course with the Supreme Court. Many observers expect the court soon to rule his plan to get reelected president is illegal.

But Musharraf does have a few strong cards. He has significant international support. The army and intelligence services appeared to be behind him. Deporting Sharif also seems to have exposed divisions between the opposition parties.

Former prime minister Benazir Bhutto hasn't shown much sympathy for Sharif. Among those at court today was a senior member of her party - Latif Khan Khosa. He was critical of Sharif's people for failing to pressure Musharraf on as many fronts as possible, including rallying support on the streets.

Senator LATIF KHAN KHOSA (People's Party, Pakistan): The political parties have to show their strength elsewhere, not come here and ask everything from the Supreme Court of Pakistan.

REEVES: Attention will now focus on the power-sharing negotiations between Bhutto and Musharraf. Engaging with the unpopular Musharraf is damaging public support for Bhutto. But Khosa argues, this sacrifice is necessary, if she's to secure a transition to democracy and avert the risk of Musharraf declaring martial law.

Sen. KHOSA: You cannot push the army and punch it out of power. You have to be articulated in taking them back to the barracks and, you know, trying to retrieve a situation whereby the people can get their rights back and the country can put on the rule of law and constitutionality. I think that is what she's trying to do.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.