The life sentence for Nawaz Sharif on charges of hijacking and terrorism, was accompanied by the surprise acquittal by the anti-terrorism court in Karachi of the other six accused. When the judgement came on 6 April, the irony, of course, was that the court itself was established by Sharif as prime minister, who had pushed it through despite vehement opposition from political parties and human rights groups.
The irony would have been starker if the former prime minister had been sentenced to hang, as was expected by many. The special anti-terrorism court judge, Rehmat Hussain Jaffri, said in his verdict by way of explanation: “The offence was committed at the spur of the moment and in the heat of passion when the then prime minister of Pakistan, who was also the defence minister, came to know that his authority was eroded by some army soldiers.”
Pakistan International flight PK 805, flying into Karachi from Colombo on 12 October 1999, was carrying the army chief General Pervez Musharraf returning from a ceremonial visit and some rounds of golf in Sri Lanka. The bizarre nature of the entire episode is highlighted by the fact that this is probably the first time anywhere that people on the ground (rather than those inside the plane)—that too a sitting prime minister—was convicted as the primary conspirator in a ‘hijacking’.
In preventing Gen Musharraf’s plane from landing at Karachi, the ATC judge held that Sharif had conspired with the then-civil aviation chief, Aminullah Chaudhury. The former prime minister was found guilty under Section 402-B (hijacking) and Section 7 of the Anti-Terrorism Act (again, a piece of legislation rammed through the then-still-functioning Parliament by Sharif). Sharif received life imprisonment on both counts, of 25 years each. All his extensive property has been attached by the court, which also fined him INR 10 lakhs, besides directing him to pay INR 20 lakhs as cumulative compensation to the 198 passengers on board. The ex-PM has recourse to appeal in the Sindh High Court and the Supreme Court.
The ‘hijacking’ episode itself was quite extraordinary. Gen Musharraf had been divested of his Chief of Army Staff (COAS) position by the prime minister while he was still in the air, and it was thought best by Sharif and his coterie in an emergency confabulation that the general ought to be somewhere else than land on Pakistani soil.
The PIA pilot had already begun descent over the Arabian Sea in its approach to Karachi when he was refused permission to gear-down. According to the pilot, when he asked for an alternative airfield, he was told to take the plane to Ahmedabad in the Indian state of Gujarat. When he refused, on the ground that he was carrying the COAS who could hardly be taken to “enemy” territory, he was directed to proceed to Nawabshah, just north-east of Karachi. He was turning the aircraft in that direction when the tower again radioed to say that it was okay to land at Karachi—by this time, the COAS’ loyalists had managed to wrest control of
While the 6 April sentence bars Sharif from active politics for the foreseeable future, it came as a relief to many who were expecting the death sentence. As The Indian Express across the border put it in a headline, “No noose is good news”. Besides the hijack-order having been spur-of-moment, as the sentencing judge pointed out, the death penalty also seems to have been deflected by international pressure, not least by US President Bill Clinton’s appeal for clemency during his fleeting stopover in Pakistan. Meanwhile, Sharif’s conviction has thrown his erstwhile majority party in the suspended Parliament, Pakistan Muslim League (PML), into open disarray. Not only have there been no major protests against the lifer, party leaders are visibly disgruntled at the role being played by Kulsoom Nawaz, the party president’s hitherto secluded wife, who has since his arrest unexpectedly come forth to address public rallies and make press statements. The PML seems to be heading for a split, with at least one faction, in true dynastic fashion, supporting Kulsoom, and others rooting for various PML presidential hopefuls.
The ATC sentence can be commuted by the president, but again Sharif’s past actions are catching up with him. Today, Pakistan’s president has become toothless and bereft of most powers, thanks to the PML-dominated Parliament voting against the Eighth Amendment brought into place by Sharif’s mentor General Ziaul Haq, as a means of providing presidential checks on the office of the prime minister. Ironically again, it was the removal of these checks that contributed to Sharif’s increasingly despotic tendencies, which eroded democratic practices, and which finally led to his downfall. In the absence of such a monitoring, the only institution capable of stopping Sharif from becoming a “Mughal emperor”—as critics put it—was the army,.
And that is what happened. When a power-giddy prime minister tried to tamper with this last remaining institution by dismissing (albeit legally) the COAS, he was sealing his own fate. This does not, of course, make Gen. Musharraf’s takeover kosher, but it pretty much sums up the dilemma that Pakistan currently faces.