(New York) - Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have flouted international law by forcibly transferring Pakistani opposition leader Nawaz Sharif into exile in Saudi Arabia, Human Rights Watch said today. The Pakistani government’s actions are a direct affront to the Pakistani constitution and a recent Supreme Court ruling on Sharif.
Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif flew into the capital Islamabad this morning in a bid to end seven years of exile after a decision by the country’s Supreme Court cleared the way for his return to Pakistan. Sharif was deposed in a military coup in 1999 by General Pervez Musharraf. On landing, the Pakistan International Airlines plane carrying Sharif was surrounded by paramilitary troops. Sharif emerged from the aircraft two hours later and was taken to a lounge where he was charged with corruption. Shortly thereafter, he was separated from his entourage, returned to the tarmac and made to board a helicopter. Later, he was forcibly transferred to a plane bound for the Saudi city of Jeddah.
“General Musharraf has brazenly flouted international law in forcing Sharif back into exile. He has violated Pakistan’s constitution and defied a direct ruling of Pakistan’s Supreme Court,” said Ali Dayan Hasan, South Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have colluded in bundling a Pakistani citizen into a plane and forced exile.”
The Pakistani government maintained, with Saudi support, that Nawaz Sharif should honor the terms of an exile deal brokered by Saudi King Abdullah in 2001, under which Sharif and his brother cannot return to Pakistan for another three years. But on August 23, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled that the exile agreement had no legal standing and that the Sharifs “have an inalienable right to enter and remain in country, as citizens of Pakistan” under article 15 of the Pakistani constitution. “Their entry into the country shall not be restrained, hampered or obstructed by federal or provincial government agencies, in any manner,” a seven-member bench of the court said in a unanimous decision.
Saudi Arabia's intelligence chief, Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz, a brother of the Saudi king, along with Saad Hariri, son of slain Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, addressed a press conference in Islamabad on September 8 calling on Sharif to honor the Saudi-brokered exile deal. When the Saudi intelligence chief was reminded that the Supreme Court of Pakistan had ruled on the matter, he responded by asking: “Which comes first, the agreement or the Supreme Court?” He also added that Saudi Arabia would “welcome” Nawaz Sharif if he was “deported” by the Pakistani government.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is recognized as reflective of customary international law, states: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.” It also states that everyone has the right “to return to his country.”
Saudi intelligence and diplomatic officials were present at Islamabad airport when Sharif was forcibly exiled to Saudi Arabia.
“Sharif must be allowed to leave Saudi Arabia and return to Pakistan if he so wishes, and the international media and independent monitors must be provided immediate access to him,” said Hasan. “Anything less would make a mockery of international law.”
Human Rights Watch reiterated its call for the Pakistani government to immediately release thousands of activists of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) [known as PML(N)] and political leaders from the All Parties Democratic Movement (APDM) arrested for attempting to receive Sharif on his return to the country. The activists have been arrested under various provisions of the Maintenance of Public Order Act, the Anti-Terrorism Act or simply detained without charge. The PML(N) alleges that thousands of party activists have been arrested since Sharif announced the date of his return to Pakistan. While the exact number of those arrested remains difficult to ascertain, the government has admitted to arresting “hundreds of troublemakers.”
“The government should immediately release illegally detained opposition leaders and activists,” said Hasan.
Human Rights Watch called upon the United States to condemn Sharif’s forced illegal transfer to Saudi Arabia and the mass arrests in Pakistan. Both countries are close allies of the United States.
“The US is not immune to the fallout when two of its closest allies conspire to deny a political opposition leader the right to return to his own country,” said Hasan. “Continuing US acceptance of its allies’ repression of political opponents in exchange for cooperation in the ‘war on terror’ is as unwise as it is wrong.”