The verdict was predictable. In fact, Karachi bookies had placed incredibly high odds against him being awarded the death sentence. Which is perhaps why former prime minister Nawaz Sharif managed to keep a straight face when anti-terrorist court (ATC) judge Rehmat Hussain Jaffrey read out the life imprisonment sentence for him on the morning of April 6.
But the political impact of the verdict may soon bring the furrows back onto Sharifs brow. For one, unless the civilian courts overturn the judgement, Sharif is going to spend a long time in jail. Recognising this, his Pakistan Muslim League (PML) is already showing signs of a split. The fact that the party decided to skip even token street protests following the judgement speaks for itself.
Nawazs brother and former chief minister of Punjab province, Shahbaz Sharif, and five other accused were acquitted by the court, though they may not be freed soon in the light of other cases pending against them. All of them were charged with hijacking, terrorism and kidnapping for trying to prevent the landing of Airbus PK 805, carrying 198 passengers, including Pakistan army chief, Gen Pervez Musharraf, on October 12, 1999. Other charges include corruption and attempted jail-break. Musharraf had sacked Sharif the same night and a month later, Sharif was booked in the plane conspiracy case.
The PML, strangely, failed to organise even one protest rally against the arrest. Even on the day of the verdict, there was no protest in the country, not even in Lahore, Sharifs hometown. Hardly two dozen PML workers gathered outside the court. Also significant is the fact that though Nawazs wife, Kulsoom, and their daughter, Merriam, seem keen to launch a protest movement, other PML members appear reluctant. Senior party leaders, in fact, were cautious in their response.
"We will not adopt a policy of agitation and will continue to fight a legal battle," said former PML minister and Sharifs lawyer, Salem Zia. A final decision on whether or not to launch a protest movement will be taken when the PML central working committee meets in Islamabad soon. Party sources, however, said that the "anti-Kulsoom and anti-Nawaz lobby within the party may go for a change of leadership after Sharif is disqualified to contest any election in the light of the judgement".
At the moment, the PML is divided into three major groups. One is led by Kulsoom Nawaz, the other by Ejazul Haq, son of the late Gen Zia-ul Haq, while the third is led by former governor of Punjab, Mian Mohammad Azhar. Following the verdict, most PML workers are behind Kulsoom and it is up to her now to muster all the support she can since it wont be easy for either Ejaz or Azhar to stage a coup within the party at this juncture. Another man who could be acceptable to the establishment (army) is the present convenor of the party, Raja Zafarul Haq. However, because of the workers pressure, he too is not ready to replace Nawaz. Much now depends on Sharif himself-he could either nominate someone as the acting president of PML or continue to lead the party from prison.
PML leaders are also awaiting the Supreme Court judgement on petitions challenging the October 12 coup and the suspension of the assemblies. If the SC restores the assemblies and declares the coup illegal (which seems unlikely), the entire political scenario in Pakistan could change. But if the SC accords Musharrafs junta legal status, the PML may be left with no other option but to go for a leadership change.
Hardcore Sharif supporters, however, are unwilling to accept this. "If Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto could remain chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party despite being in prison; if his daughter Benazir Bhutto could remain chairperson of her party despite being convicted, why cant our leaders accept Nawaz Sharif as president of the PML?" asked a party leader from Karachi, Nihal Hashmi.
In his short order from the 100-plus-page judgement in an open court, ATC judge Jaffrey had said: "The prosecution had proved the case of hijacking and terrorism against Nawaz Sharif who as prime minister ordered that plane PK 805 should not land anywhere in Pakistan. His order was executed by switching off the lights of the runway of Karachi airport and blocking it with fire tenders. Thus he is sentenced to life imprisonment and all his property and assets would be confiscated."
Minutes after the judgement, Sharif, in notes written in reply to questions Outlook asked through his counsel, said: "This case has been framed against me at the behest of retired general, Pervez Musharraf. He bore a grudge against me on a number of counts, and had prepared a blueprint for the overthrow of my government."
The decision on confiscating Sharifs property and assets will be taken after the final appeal. "It is (provided) under the law to confiscate property and assets which will be deposited in the government account," said public prosecutor Raja Qureshi. As far as the Rs 2-million compensation is concerned, it will be distributed among the passengers, which include Musharraf himself and 50 students of the American school. "I assure you the General will not take the compensation nor his staff members who were on board the PK 805. But it will certainly be distributed among the other passengers," he added.
Expressing his dissatisfaction with the verdict, Qureshi said: "We had demanded death sentence and may file an appeal against the lesser punishment. We will certainly file an appeal against the acquittal of the six other accused in the next seven days."
Sources say there are also indications of the Sharif family striking a deal with the government through Shahbaz. "His acquittal is quite significant and one has to watch his fate too after this verdict," said senior political analyst, Prof Tauseef Ahmed Khan.
Sharif himself has at least 20 more corruption and other cases pending against him. The next case pending with the National Accountability Bureau is over the purchase of Russian helicopters at the cost of $1.37 million. Officials say this case has matured and there are 22 witnesses against Sharif, beside documentary proof. If found guilty, Sharif can be disqualified from contesting polls for 21 years. Another case under investigation is the export of sugar to India from Sharifs Ittefaq group of Industries. Yet another case, now pending in the Supreme Court, relates to the acceptance of a huge amount of money from former army chief, Gen (RTD) Mirza Aslam Beg, for the 1990 elections.
This means that even if the superior court upholds Sharifs appeal in the plane conspiracy case, his chances of getting out of prison are very bleak. "As long as the present government is here, I do not think he will ever be freed," said one senior jurist.
But Sharif himself is confident. "Musharraf has been masquerading as the saviour of the nation and projecting me as the villain of the piece. But in the annals of history, it will be he who shall stand adjudged responsible for the gross illegalities committed by him on October 12," he stated. But the judgement, while reflecting the air of personal vendetta between Musharraf and Sharif, has also created cracks in Sharifs party. And who knows, he may be all alone when the time to file the final appeal comes.