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Pakistan: Troubled Month Lies Ahead For Prime Minister

  • Bruce Pannier

Prague, 4 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif faces a difficult month in May.

Domestic unrest has increased following a court decision in April convicting political rival and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto on corruption charges.

In addition, more disagreements are foreseen with the country's Human Rights Commission after Sharif reinstituted the controversial anti-terror courts.

At the end of the month, the country celebrates a dubious anniversary, Pakistan's nuclear tests last year, serving as a reminder that much has yet to be done to lessen military tensions with neighboring India.

Sharif had hoped that Bhutto's conviction on charges of receiving kickbacks from a Swiss firm would have portrayed the former prime minister as a hopelessly corrupt politician. Instead, the court ruling appears to have galvanized support for her among the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).

Sharif's government arrested hundreds of PPP supporters in the early hours of Saturday morning to prevent party rallies later that day in support of Bhutto. Western agencies put the number of arrests at around 200, but party president Rao Sikander said 2,000 members had been detained in Punjab province alone.

In spite of the arrests, the PPP did manage to hold rallies. Sikander told a crowd in Lahore that the Sharif government has only weeks left in power. Another large public gathering is planned in the city for May 14. Sikander says this will spell the end of Sharif's time in office.

Sharif's government remains under fire from the country's Human Rights Commission. In a report released Sunday, the commission -- probably referring to the Bhutto case -- said opposition elements are being squeezed out of their democratic role through "one-sided accountability." The report said authorities are straying from their democratic course and warned the national order is in serious danger of breaking down.

The report expressed alarm at a decision last week to reinstitute the anti-terrorist courts. The courts were created in 1997 to help combat religious and political extremists. The courts can pass harsh sentences, including the death penalty, for crimes such as terrorism and rape.

Pakistans Supreme Court ruled in February the courts were unconstitutional.

Things don't look any better at the end of the month. On May 28, it will be one year since Pakistan conducted nuclear tests in response to tests India held two weeks earlier. The anniversary is a visible reminder that ties with India remain strained, while Pakistan continues to struggle with economic sanctions imposed by many countries after the tests.

Relations with India appeared to improve earlier this year following talks between Sharif and Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. There was even speculation that both countries could sign the international Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), outlawing nuclear tests, by September.

But last month the Indian government fell and the country is now ruled by a caretaker government until elections can be held later this year.

The government could still conceivably sign the CTBT, but commentators in India say this is unlikely because the treaty would become a potent political issue. To complicate matters, India last month tested a new missile capable of carrying nuclear warheads to any spot in Pakistan, and Pakistan responded with missile tests of its own.

Observers say India may soon test a hydrogen bomb. This would again give it a leg up as Pakistan doesn't yet have this capability. But given the rivalry between the two, Pakistan would feel strong pressure to respond in kind.

Prime Minister Sharif is frequently criticized for spending much of his 26 months in office outside of the country. Opposition senators yesterday complained that Sharif so far has made 39 visits abroad. This month, he's not likely to have much of an opportunity to leave Pakistan.