NEW YORK - Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the United States' two closest allies in its so-called "war on terror," violated international law this week when a key political opposition leader was forcibly flown out of one country and into to the other, a leading human rights watchdog has charged.
Pakistan and Saudi Arabia "have flouted international law" by forcibly transferring opposition leader and former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif into exile, Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
Monday, Sharif, who was deposed in 1999 by General Pervez Musharraf, returned to Pakistan after seven years in exile. But as soon as he arrived at the Islamabad airport, he was detained and later forcibly transferred to a plane bound for the Saudi city of Jeddah.
Defending its action, the Musharraf regime said Sharif should honor the terms of a deal brokered by Saudi Arabia in 2001 under which Sharif and his brother cannot return to Pakistan for another three years.
Sharif has repeatedly denied that he agreed to such a deal. Last month he declared his intention to return to Pakistan after the country's Supreme Court ruled that the exile agreement had no legal standing.
Observers say Sharif's reentry into Pakistani politics would have caused a great deal of trouble for General Musharraf who seeks to prolong his rule as president and thus is trying to strike a deal with Benazir Bhutto, another exiled opposition leader.
While Bhutto seems willing to share power with Musharraf on certain conditions, including her demand that he shed his military uniform, Sharif has taken a tough stance against military interference in the country's politics and governance.
Pakistan has been ruled by military dictators for almost half of the 60 years since it emerged as an independent state when the British left India in 1947.
Observers see Sharif's forcible transfer to Jeddah as a clear indication that the Pakistan army would go to any length to preserve its interests, even if it requires violating the country's constitution and international law.
Activists describe Sharif's forcible return as a violation of international law because the Universal Declaration of Human Rights clearly states that "no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile," and that "everyone has the right to return to his country."
Despite this, Sharif was held at the airport and forced onto the plane to Jeddah in the presence of Saudi intelligence officials and diplomats, a fact that has troubled many Pakistanis, who considered the process to be an interference in their domestic affairs.
"This is illegal," said Asma Jehangir, chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, about the Saudis' involvement. Speaking to the BBC's Urdu Service, she added sarcastically: "Saudi Arabia needs to build a Guantanamo where it can keep political leaders from Muslim countries who speak out in support of democracy."
Just a few days earlier, media reports said the Saudi government had warned Sharif that he should not return to Pakistan.
On Saturday, Saudi intelligence chief Murqin bin Abdul Aziz told a news conference in Islamabad that Sharif must honor the Saudi-brokered deal. When reminded of the Supreme Court decision, the Saudi intelligence chief remarked: "Which comes first, the agreement or the Supreme Court?"
At the news conference, he also added that Saudi Arabia would "welcome" Sharif if he was "deported" by the Pakistani government. Jehangir considered this statement an "affront to Pakistan's sovereignty."
"This is the handiwork of international mafia," she said of Sharif's exile to Saudi Arabia Monday.
Human Rights Watch's Ali Hasan said the group wants Sharif to be allowed to return to Pakistan in the presence of international media and independent observers. "Anything less would make a mockery of international law."
Sharif's lawyers have challenged his deportation in the Supreme Court and the country's opposition has called for a day of demonstrations across Pakistan Tuesday, even though hundreds of its leaders and activists are now in jails.
Opposition parties allege that thousands of its supporters have been arrested in the days since Sharif announced his intention to return to Pakistan.
Human Rights Watch has called into question continued U.S. support for Musharraf and has demanded that Washington condemn Sharif's forced transfer to Saudi Arabia and the mass arrests in Pakistan.
"The U.S. 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 country," said Hasan. "Continuing U.S. acceptance of its allies' repression of opponents in exchange for cooperation in 'the war on terror' is as unwise as it is wrong."
A Bush administration spokesperson shrugged off the news of Sharif's deportation Monday, saying it was a matter for the Pakistanis to work through.
The Bush administration is reportedly supportive of Musharraf's efforts to strike a deal with the other Pakistani leader-in-exile Benazir Bhutto. On Tuesday, Bhutto said Sharif's deportation does not affect her own plans to return from exile.
Bhutto is reportedly close to reaching a power-sharing agreement with Musharraf, but nothing is final as yet.
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