New Delhi (CNSNews.com) - In the first corruption case against the deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Pakistani judiciary sentenced him to 14 years of hard labor and debarred him from politics for two decades on charges of tax evasion. Sharif is already serving two life terms for hijacking and terrorism.
"I have...held accused Mohammad Nawaz Sharif guilty...(and) he is hereby convicted...(and) sentenced to R.I. (rigorous imprisonment) for a period of 14 years,'' said Judge Farrukh Latif on Saturday, who held the trial in a makeshift courtroom in the 16th Century Attock Fort west of Islamabad.
Sharif stands disqualified for 21 years for seeking or from being elected, chosen, appointed or nominated as member or representative of any public office or any statutory or local authority of the government of Pakistan.
"I was expecting the verdict,'' said a defiant Sharif after the sentencing. "It is because of a personal vendetta that such a great injustice is being done to me.''
Deposed Prime Minister accused military leader General Pervez Musharraf of crafting laws to keep him out of politics and in jail and of waging a witch-hunt against him and his family.
Musharraf, who threw out Sharif's government in a bloodless coup in October last, charging unbridled corruption and economic mismanagement, set up the special anti-corruption courts.
Sharif can appeal before a higher court in 30 days. Deposed Prime Minister said he had not made up his mind whether to challenge it. "My complaint is before God.''
However, Sharif's wife Kulsoom said the family would exercise the legal options.
``The have handed us the maximum punishment, now is the turn of Pervez Musharraf (to face punishment)'' she said.
Sharif boycotted the trial and refused to present any defense, complaining the hearing was held in haste giving him little time to consult lawyers.
Court officials said Sharif refused to formally receive the judgment that also ordered him to pay a fine of US $377,000 for failing to declare in his tax return money used to buy a Russian helicopter in 1993.
They said the court would now send the 50-page judgment to Sharif through jail authorities. If he still refuses to receive the judgment, the document will come back to the court, which will then decide what to do next, the officials said.
The verdict in the helicopter case marks the conclusion of the first of the corruption trials he faces, but there will be many more to come.
Government investigators said they are looking into 18 separate allegations of corrupt practice by the ousted Prime Minister.
Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, who both dominated the last decade of Pakistani politics, have now both been implicated in corruption cases.
Sharif has already appealed against two life terms he received in April when he was convicted of hijacking and terrorism charges related to the day of the coup when a plane carrying Musharraf was briefly prevented from landing in Karachi on a flight from Sri Lanka.
The state submitted an appeal in the Supreme Court requesting the death sentence, while Sharif's lawyers voiced confidence that the judgment would be set aside. The hearing on this case will commence from August 15.
Feud within the party
The latest conviction leaves Mr. Sharif looking increasingly politically isolated. His wife Kulsoom has been running a campaign of agitation, demanding his release. But many members of his political party, the Muslim League, have failed to back the campaign, favoring a policy of non-confrontation with the military instead.
Some senior party leaders called for Sharif to be ditched and the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) leadership handed over to a new breed of politicians ready to rebuild the shattered party for general elections due before October 2002.
"A convicted person should not lead the party and there is a need for change through party elections," said Mian Mohammad Azhar, the former governor of Punjab province and the most vocal PML voice against Sharif.
"Even Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah (the founder of Pakistan) was not made life president of the PML. They are demanding that Sharif should be made life president," he said, adding that his group would demand a leadership ballot.
But Sharif's allies, Raja Zafarul Haq, said moves to challenge his leadership had little support and would fail.
"The court has only barred him from holding public office. He can continue to lead the party from prison," Haq said.
A joint meeting of the PML's central working committee and members of the suspended parliament will be held on July 30 to discuss how to deal with the conviction.