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Former Pakistani Premier Sentenced to Life in Prison

By Kamran Khan

Special to The Washington Post -- KARACHI, Pakistan

Former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif was spared the death penalty and sentenced to life in prison Thursday after being found guilty of hijacking and terrorism charges stemming from his futile attempt to prevent a military coup that ousted him from power last October.

An antiterrorism court cleared Sharif of attempted murder and kidnapping charges in connection with his efforts to prevent a commercial aircraft carrying Gen. Pervez Musharraf from landing in Pakistan on Oct. 12. Six co-defendants, including Sharif’s brother, were acquitted on all counts.

The sentence was seen by some as a setback for Musharraf, who toppled Sharif’s government hours after the plane landed and remains at the head of a military regime. Government prosecutors, who argued that Sharif had endangered the lives of more than 200 passengers and crew members on the Pakistan International Airlines flight by refusing landing rights, had urged the court to impose the death penalty.

Reading the verdict to a packed courtroom, Judge Rehmat Hussain Jafri said he had not sentenced Sharif to death because “the lesser punishment in this case would meet the justice.” He added: “This is a simple case of attempt to hijack.”

As the verdict was read, Sharif’s three daughters, who had been praying in the courtroom, wept and shouted. Sharif, 51, showed no sign of emotion and softly asked his daughters to calm down.

“This is a cooked-up judgment,” Sharif’s daughter Marium Safdar quoted her father as saying. “It was more of a personal vendetta than a trial.”

Military authorities ordered state prosecutors to appeal the judge’s decision not to sentence Sharif to death and to acquit the six co-defendants. In Pakistan, the hijacking and terrorism charges carry the death sentence.

Although there was little protest after the verdict because the people had tired of Sharif’s corruption-ridden government, his Pakistan Muslim League is to meet Sunday to discuss a nationwide plan for peaceful protest rallies and marches.

Besides the two concurrent sentences, Sharif’s property was confiscated and he was ordered to pay $18,500 in fines and $37,000 to compensate the flight’s passengers and crew.

There is a growing perception in the legal community here that Jafri’s decision would help the former prime minister’s case.

“Today’s judgment showed that the state wouldn’t have a very strong case to defend in the appellate courts,” said Abdul Hafiz Pirzada, a prominent lawyer and former federal law minister. “Through this verdict the judge has already expressed dissatisfaction over the evidence produced against other co-defendants and the conspiracy theory that the prosecution constantly propelled.”

Sharif’s lead attorney shared Pirzada’s opinion. “Under the present circumstance, it’s a very satisfactory judgment,” said Khawaja Sultan Ahmed. “Had there been an outright not guilty judgment the military rulers would have imposed martial law immediately.”