In a swingeing blow to General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's Supreme Court has ruled that an exiled former prime minister should be allowed to return to the country where he plans to challenge the military leader's efforts to secure another term as president.
The court ruled yesterday that Nawaz Sharif, whose government was overthrown by General Musharraf in a bloodless coup in 1999, and his brother had an "inalienable right" to return to Pakistan from London. "They have an inalienable right to come back and stay in the country as citizens of Pakistan," said Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry. He said their return should not be "hampered or obstructed" by the authorities.
Aides to Mr Sharif said he would return to Pakistan shortly. "It's a great day for democracy and rule of law and for the fundamental rights of the people of Pakistan. The Supreme Court has delivered justice," his spokesman, Nadir Chaudhri, said in London.
The ruling opens the prospect of General Musharraf being challenged by two former prime ministers as he desperately seeks to hold on to the presidency. Benazir Bhutto, who twice served as prime minister, has already made clear her intention to participate in elections, scheduled to take place later this year, though she has also held talks with General Musharraf about a possible power-sharing arrangement that would allow him to retain the presidency.
Quite what impact Mr Sharif's re-entry into politics would have is unclear. After the 1999 coup and his exile the following year along with his brother, Shahbaz, General Musharraf sought to cement political support by co-opting much of Mr Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League party (PML-N). Analysts now say that support could fracture if Mr Sharif returns. "It's a landmark decision that will have a far-reaching impact on politics in Pakistan," the party's chairman, Raja Zafar-ul-Haq, told Reuters.
After he was ousted, Mr Sharif was sentenced to life in prison on charges including treason and tax evasion. Instead, he and his family left the country after the government said he had agreed to 10 years of exile - something adamantly denied by Mr Sharif. Yesterday's decision came after the former prime minister filed a petition with the top court to allow himself and his family to return.
Many observers believed the court would agree to Mr Sharif's return and in recent days the government had publicly accepted the limitations of its opposition. Last night, the country's Railways minister, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, said the court's decision had been correct. "They are part of the nation, part of Pakistan's politics and there should be no restriction on their returning and taking part in the general election," he said.
General Musharraf's support has slipped since earlier this year when he forced out the Chief Justice, Mr Chaudhry, in a move widely seen as political. Mr Chaudhry's reinstatement by the Supreme Court has been a huge boost to the independence and confidence of the judiciary.
The court recently granted bail to Javed Hashmi, an opposition leader loyal to Mr Sharif who was sentenced for inciting mutiny among the armed forces. And this week it rebuked Pakistan's intelligence services and demanded that they produce "missing persons" - those suspected to have been detained and never heard of again.
General Musharraf also faces problems from extremists, especially in the aftermath of the Red Mosque operation last month in which more than 100 people were killed. Since then there have been a number of bombings and suicide attacks against government troops and police in retaliation. He has also been facing pressure from Washington, a major financial backer, which has demanded he do more to act against extremists.
If Mr Sharif does seek a return to power it will not be without obstacles. While the PML-N leads a coalition of opposition parties known as the All-Parties Democratic Movement, the National Accountability Bureau, the government's anti-corruption unit, has said that it will be reopening cases against Mr Sharif.
Banned for life by Musharraf
Nawaz Sharif's term of office as prime minister was dramatically cut short in 1999, when he was overthrown in a military coup by General Pervez Musharraf and sentenced to life imprisonment on charges of corruption, hijacking and terrorism.
In lieu of serving years behind bars, Mr Sharif and his family were exiled to Saudi Arabia for 10 years, and the former prime minister was banned for life from involving himself in politics. But now the man who earned great popularity in 1998 by ordering Pakistan's first nuclear weapons test in response to India's test is determined to return home in an attempt to challenge President Musharraf.
Mr Sharif, 57, first entered Punjab government in 1981 as finance minister under General Zia-ul-Haq. He later served two terms as prime minister, from 1990-93 and again from 1997-99. During this second term he introduced several constitutional reforms, removing the president's power to dismiss the prime minister, and otherwise strengthening his position in power.
Mr Sharif also clashed with the all-powerful army. His disagreements with the head of the army, General Musharraf, eventually led to the general's dismissal as army chief, and his subsequent bloodless coup to topple the government.