Small mercy

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 April, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 April, 2000, 12:00am

Few tears have been shed in Pakistan over the punishment of deposed prime minister Nawaz Sharif. There is relief, at home and internationally, that the court stopped short of imposing the death penalty, but little grief over the fate of a man widely seen by his countrymen as one of the worst in a succession of corrupt and self-serving politicians.

Pakistan's Human Rights Commission has declared the trial reasonably fair. Mr Sharif has been acquitted on charges of attempted murder and kidnapping, but his action in trying to stop General Pervez Musharraf's plane from landing in Karachi six months ago was judged to be hijacking and terrorism, and for that he has been given two life sentences, plus the confiscation of all his property.

Whether Mr Sharif will spend his days behind bars depends on the President's inclination to grant clemency at some future date when it might be felt he has paid for his crimes. That is more probable when the country has returned to democracy. But there is no immediate prospect of that, and perhaps no great thirst for it anytime soon, provided the military regime does not become too repressive, and General Musharraf takes small steps towards restoring elections.

Pakistan's reputation has never fully recovered from the damage done to it when prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged in 1979 during the military regime of general Zia-ul-Haq. The nation has never had a sustained period of stability in 50 years, and the parliamentary system will have to be reformed to change the dominance of the ruling class and make room for politicians with the interests of the country at heart before real democracy can take root.

But Nawaz Sharif's life has at least been spared; a small mercy perhaps. But a wise decision and one for which the world is grateful.