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ISLAMABAD, July 17 The Supreme Court quashed on Friday the conviction of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif in the plane hijacking case, clearing the way for the Pakistan Muslim League-N chief to return to parliamentary politics.

“Looking at the case from any angle, the charge of hijacking, attempt to hijack or terrorism does not stand established against the petitioner,” a 55-page unanimous order of the five-judge bench said.

The petition was moved by Mr Sharif after more than eight years to clear his name, saying the sentence was a “stigma” and “slur” on his character, compromising his right to contest elections.

“Every citizen is entitled to have his name cleared, if unjustifiably sullied, and it should be of particular importance to the petitioner, who remained prime minister of the country twice and is presently leading a major political party, to remove the stigma of conviction for a crime and that too of hijacking, generally associated with terrorism,” the verdict authored by Justice Nasirul Mulk said.

“Consequently, the petition is converted into appeal and allowed. The conviction and sentence of the appellant are set aside and he (Nawaz Sharif) is acquitted,” the bench comprising Justice Tassaduq Hussain Jillani, Justice Nasirul Mulk, Justice Moosa K. Leghari, Justice Sheikh Hakim Ali and Justice Ghulam Rabbani observed in the order, quashing the Sindh High Court's verdict sentencing Mr Sharif to life term.

On April 6, 2000, an anti-terrorism court in Karachi had awarded life sentence to Mr Sharif and acquitted all other accused of hijacking a plane carrying former army chief Pervez Musharraf and 198 other passengers. The SHC upheld the conviction on Oct 10, 2000, while turning down a state appeal demanding death sentence.

Mr Sharif did not file an appeal against the decision at that time, saying the judiciary was not independent because the judges had taken oath under a Provisional Constitution Order.

On condoning the delay of over eight years in filing the petition against his conviction which normally should have been filed within a month, the judgment explained that Mr Sharif was prevented from returning to Pakistan when he came to Islamabad from London after ending his exile.

Additionally, this court was always slow in dismissing petitions against conviction and sentence on the question of limitation and was more inclined to examine the case on merits in order to prevent grave miscarriage of justice, notwithstanding delay, the verdict said.

About hijacking charges, the judgment said, Mr Sharif had neither used force nor ordered its use or employed deceitful means. Even otherwise, the offence of hijacking itself contained an element of abduction and if the former offence was not proved, the latter could not be established, it said.

Similarly, the petitioner had neither ordered closure of the Karachi and Nawabshah airports nor blocking of the runways; rather he had issued instructions for the plane to land in Nawabshah once told about insufficiency of fuel. Even the pilot was not under any threat or influence. Thus the findings of the SHC as well as the ATA, on this ingredient, were contrary to the evidence on record and therefore warranted reversal, it said.

It also expressed surprise over registration of the FIR against Mr Sharif for hijacking the plane after a month. “Undoubtedly, the FIR could have been lodged soon after the incident as the basic facts were then available, which were even disclosed by Gen Pervez Musharraf within hours of (the Oct 12, 1999, military) takeover.”

Had the FIR been lodged immediately after the incident, the investigation would have been taken over by the police and important evidence, not only beneficial to the prosecution but perhaps also helpful to the defence, would have been taken into possession and preserved.