Opposition heavyweight Nawaz Sharif was on Tuesday barred from standing in Pakistan's January 8 elections, prompting his party to question President Pervez Musharraf's pledge to hold free and fair polls under a "handpicked and powerless" Election Commission.
Additional Sessions Judge Qamar-uz-Zaman, who is the returning officer, rejected Sharif's nomination papers in view of his conviction in a hijacking case in 2000 but the PML-N leader brushed aside his disqualification and vowed to continue his fight against Musharraf. His lawyers said they will appeal against the Commission's decision.
"Let them reject the nomination 10 times or even hundred times... Nawaz Sharif is fighting for his people and his Pakistan. I do not need any office," Sharif told cheering supporters in Islamabad.
The order came two days after his brother Shahbaz suffered a similar fate over pending criminal charges. "After eight years of military rule and with an election commission which is biased and powerless, it is no surprise that they have rejected the nomination papers.... How can elections be free and fair in these circumstances?" Syed Zafar Ali Shah, the vice president of Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party, was quoted as saying by media here.
Accusing Musharraf of being responsible for the disqualification of the two leaders, party spokesman Nadir Chaudhri described it as "as the most blatant form of rigging possible".
The decision came as Sharif flew to Islamabad to hold talks with rival opposition leader Benazir Bhutto to decide on possible boycott of the polls.
Though Sharif had filed nomination papers, his party had said said it will boycott the polls while Bhutto said she will take part in the elections unless the opposition takes a united stand on staying away from the ballot.
US Ambassador Anne Patterson also met Sharif and urged all political parties in Pakistan to participate in the upcoming general election.
Patterson, who also met former Punjab chief minister Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi and rights activist Asma Jehangir here, said the US hoped that "the parties will participate and we will work hard to ensure that the elections are free and fair".
However, Sharif reiterated his demand of restoration of judiciary saying lifting of emergency will be "meaningless" if the judges are not reinstated.
Three persons, including rival PML-Q candidate Khwaja Tahir Zia, had filed objections to Sharif's nomination. Zia had demanded that Sharif be declared ineligible because of his involvement in the hijacking case which relates to Sharif's alleged efforts in 1999 to turn back a plane that was bringing back Musharraf -- then the army chief -- from a foreign trip.
Musharraf got in touch with army commanders on the ground and organised a coup to depose Sharif. In 2000, Sharif was convicted for hijacking and given a life imprisonment term. He later went into exile to Saudi Arabia in exchange for the dropping of his prison term and returned to Pakistan on November 25, after an earlier failed bid in September.
Zia had also pointed out that an accountability court had sentenced Sharif to 14 years in jail and barred him from holding public office for 21 years.
Attorney General Malik Qayyum had said shortly after Sharif's return last month that he was not likely to be allowed to contest the polls in view of his conviction.
The returning officer rejected Shahbaz's nomination papers on Saturday for one parliamentary constituency and two seats of the Punjab provincial assembly due to his alleged involvement in the extra-judicial killing of five students in 1998. Shahbaz was the chief minister of Punjab at that time.