NYT : Musharraf Meets With Saudis to Discuss What to Do With One of His Rivals

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Musharraf Meets With Saudis to Discuss What to Do With One of His Rivals

By JANE PERLEZ | November 21, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Nov. 20 — In his first trip out of the country since declaring emergency rule, the Pakistani president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, arrived in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday to discuss the future of one of his main political rivals, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who lives in exile there.

The Pakistani president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, met Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, at the airport in Riyadh Tuesday.

Saudi Arabia, one of Pakistan’s closest allies, has indicated that Mr. Sharif should be allowed to return to his homeland to take part in parliamentary elections, Pakistani officials and Western diplomats said.

The Saudis have argued, diplomats said, that since Pakistan allowed a secular female leader, Benazir Bhutto, to return from self-imposed exile, then Mr. Sharif, a more conservative and religiously inclined leader, should be permitted to come back, too.

General Musharraf toppled Mr. Sharif in a bloodless coup in October 1999 and sent him into exile soon afterward. Mr. Sharif has become one of the general’s fiercest critics, and his return to Pakistan could present a strong political challenge to the party that backs the president and to Ms. Bhutto’s party.

In General Musharraf’s absence, the Pakistani election commission said that parliamentary elections would be held on Jan. 8. General Musharraf has insisted that these elections will be held under emergency rule, a stance the Bush administration has criticized.

Opposition parties have said free and fair elections would be impossible under the emergency decree, now more than two weeks old, which has banned public gatherings and shut down independent news channels. But so far the parties have stopped short of forming a united front that would boycott the voting.

As the Musharraf government prepared for the elections, the Interior Ministry announced that 3,416 detainees arrested under the emergency rule had been released. That figure could not be verified. However, a Western diplomat said Tuesday that the Pakistani government had indicated that about 1,000 detainees out of 4,500 had been released.

In Sindh Province, the home secretary, Ghulam Mohammad Mohatarem, said 650 people had been released. Diplomats said there seemed to be a revolving door; as detainees were let go, other opponents were arrested.

In Karachi, the police arrested about 200 journalists on Tuesday as they marched from the press club to the governor’s house to protest the closure of Geo TV. The television station has refused to sign a new code of conduct introduced by the government since emergency rule was imposed on Nov. 3.

Speaking in Karachi from a police station where he was being held with 35 other journalists, Zarar Khan, a reporter with The Associated Press, said two journalists had been beaten severely by police officers as they were rounded up and had suffered head wounds.

In an example of the government’s failing to follow through on its promised releases, 45 lawyers were ordered released on Monday by the High Court in Lahore, said Iqbal Haider, the secretary general of the Pakistan Human Rights Commission. But then the government immediately issued new detention orders for the lawyers, and they were kept in prison, he said.

In Karachi, a lawyer, Naim Queresh, was removed from the bar association headquarters on Monday as he was addressing his colleagues, Mr. Haider said.

The most prominent government opponents remain detained. Among them are the four leaders of the lawyers’ movement, including Aitzaz Ahsan, the chairman of the Supreme Court Bar Association, and leaders of the Pakistan Muslim League, the political party led by Mr. Sharif. The judges on the Supreme Court who were dismissed by General Musharraf are also still under house arrest.

The role of Mr. Sharif has come to the fore since the return of Ms. Bhutto, who also is a former prime minister. Mr. Sharif tried to return to Pakistan a few months ago after the Supreme Court ruled that he should be permitted to do so. But soon after landing at Islamabad in September, Mr. Sharif was unceremoniously sent back to Saudi Arabia.

Since then, supporters of Mr. Sharif have protested, asserting that it was unfair of the Saudis to keep Mr. Sharif and effectively prevent him from taking part in Pakistani politics. The demonstrations against Saudi Arabia, an ally that contributes financially to Islamic schools and sells oil to Pakistan at favorable rates, are deeply embarrassing to the Saudi royal family, diplomats and Pakistani officials said.

In an interview in Tuesday’s issue of the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, Mr. Sharif said that he would not meet with General Musharraf in Saudi Arabia, and that he wanted emergency rule lifted before he would return. Ahsan Iqbal, a spokesman for Mr. Sharif’s party, said General Musharraf would try to dissuade the Saudis from releasing Mr. Sharif.

“From the Saudi point of view, Benazir Bhutto is here, but Sharif is not allowed,” Mr. Iqbal said. “By having him in Saudi Arabia, they become involved in party politics here, and they don’t like that.”

In his autobiography, “In the Line of Fire,” General Musharraf described how he had arranged a deal with Mr. Sharif in 1990 [1999! -- WP] in which criminal charges against the former prime minister were dropped on the condition that he agree to go to Saudi Arabia for 10 years and remain out of politics.

Rasheed Abou-Alsamh contributed reporting from Jidda, Saudi Arabia.