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Pakistan asks court to suspend ban on Sharifs

world Updated: Mar 21, 2009 20:20 IST
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Pakistan's government asked the Supreme Court on Saturday to suspend a ruling last month that banned two opposition leaders from elected office and sparked a political crisis.

The request was a step towards dispelling mistrust between the government, led by President Asif Ali Zardari's Pakistan People's Party, and former prime minister and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif.

Recent turmoil had threatened to plunge the country into violent turmoil and distract the government from fighting militancy and reviving its struggling economy.

The government, faced with huge protests, had on March 14 offered to appeal against a Feb. 25 court ruling which barred Sharif and his politician brother, Shahbaz, from elected office.

Two days later it agreed to reinstate a Supreme Court chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, to stop the "long march" protests by lawyers and opposition parties, including the Sharifs'.

Deputy Attorney General Agha Tariq Mehmud said the government had asked the Supreme Court to set aside the Feb. 25 ruling, pending the judicial review.

"On the directive of prime minister, we have filed a petition requesting the court to suspend the operation of the order until the disposal of our appeal," Mehmud told Reuters.

The Supreme Court ruling nullified a by-election victory by Shahbaz Sharif and disqualified him from holding the office of chief minister of Punjab, Pakistan's most populous and politically influential province.

The Sharif party's government was thrown out of power in the province and Zardari imposed central rule there for two months.

The Sharifs said Zardari was behind the ruling, which they said was based on old convictions they say were politically motivated, and they threw their wholehearted support behind the lawyers' protest.

The suspension of the ruling would enable Shahbaz Sharif to become chief minister of Punjab again, as soon as federal rule is lifted. The government says it wants to lift central rule, known as governor's rule, as soon as possible.

In his first public comments on the decision to reinstate Chaudhry as Supreme Court chief, Zardari said late on Friday it would strengthen the country's institutions.

He also called for the past to be set aside.

"It is time to look forward and build on what has been achieved. It is time to forget the past, it is time to move on," Zardari said at a dinner for retiring Supreme Court chief Abdul Hameed Dogar.

Chaudhry is due to take charge of the Supreme Court on Sunday and is expected to return to work on Tuesday. Monday is a holiday.

(Reporting by Kamran Haider; Editing by Robert Birsel and Sanjeev Miglani)