|Tuesday, 3 September 2002|
Bhutto delays return to Pakistan after election nominations rejected
Former prime minister Benazir Bhutto said Sunday she has postponed plans to return to Pakistan after election officials rejected her applications to stand in October's polls.
"I have postponed my programme (to return home) as my nomination papers have just now been rejected," she said in an interview with the Karachi-based correspondent of Deutsche Welle radio to be aired Sunday night.
She had previously hinted she would return to Pakistan soon but had never fixed a date.
"I will see where the situation leads (and) I will consult with my colleagues," she said.
Bhutto said she was grateful to former prime minister Nawaz Sharif -- her old political rival -- for rescinding his approved nomination for the poll in protest of the first rejection Friday of one of her nominations.
"I have heard the news that... Nawaz Sharif has taken back his nomination and I am thankful to him (for this gesture). It will be setback to the military government," she said.
On Sunday Pakistani election authorities rejected two more applications by two-time ex-premier Bhutto to contest the polls, triggering angry protests by her supporters.
Abdul Ghani Soomro, a returning officer at the Bhutto family stronghold at Larkana 1,200 kilometers (720 miles) southeast of Islamabad, said the nomination for the Larkana seat was rejected on the grounds that Bhutto had been convicted for absconding from two graft trials this year.
"She has been convicted by an accountability court to three years (in jail) and under the election rules a convict stands disqualified. I regret that her nomination cannot be accepted," Soomro said.
After the decision was announced hundreds of Bhutto supporters, who had gathered outside the electoral commission offices, chanted slogans and hurled abuse aimed at Pakistan's military leader President Pervez Musharraf.
Despite tight security, they pounded the doors in anger and stormed into the building, beating their chests and shouting "Go, Musharraf, Go. Our prime minister is Benazir Bhutto."
Police did not intervene, apparently intimidated by the mood and size of the crowd, witnesses said.
Sunday's hearing into Bhutto's nomination for candidacy in Pakistan's October 10 elections lasted approximately 40 minutes, during which time the ex-premier's counsel cited several legal precedents in favour of the acceptance of her nomination.
"If she is disqualified, the voters will stand disenfranchised and they will not be allowed to choose their own candidate," said counsel Farooq Naik, adding the disqualification would be appealed.
The Sindh provincial chief of Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) Nisar Khoro said: "This is a criminal conspiracy by the military regime, because they know she will win and become prime minister."
Angry Bhutto supporters also burned tyres as anti-government slogans were chanted. They then converged on Khoro's residence.
Witnesses said police armed with tear gas arrived at the scene, but took no action. No arrests were reported.
Later provincial election commissioner Ahmed Ali Helpoto at the southern port city of Karachi also declared Bhutto ineligible to contest a seat reserved for women in the National Assembly.
"Benazir Bhutto's nomination papers are rejected because she has been convicted," Halepoto said, rejecting a request by party officials seeking a 24-hour delay in the hearing because her chief counsel, Farooq Naik, was in Larkana.
Witnesses said an emotionally charged crowd burst into the election office shouting "Benazir is innocent."
Self-exiled Bhutto's nomination for the rural seat of Ratto Dero just north of here was rejected Friday on similar grounds.
In Larkana Khoro said the PPP protests would continue.
"The people of Larkana cannot think of elections without Bhutto. We hope the higher authorities will give justice."
Ordinary people in Bhutto's traditional stronghold of Larkana were described as being in a state of shock.
Describing the mood, Mohammad Bakhshs, 50, caretaker of the Bhutto family's Garhi Khuda Bakhsh graveyard said: "It seems as if another Bhutto died today."
"It is a difficult situation for the Bhutto family. She has a right to participate in the elections. However Musharraf is a king he can do whatever he likes."
PPP Secretary General Raza Rabbani said the rejection of Bhutto's papers from all seats "exposed the hollowness of the regime's claim that elections will be held in a free and fair manner."
Rabbani urged the international human rights bodies to take note of the "election manipulations resorted to by the regime."
Produced by Lake House