Pak Court clears Sharif's last hurdle

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan's top court acquitted opposition leader Nawaz Sharif on Friday of hijacking charges stemming from the 1999 coup against his government, clearing the last obstacle to Sharif's running for office.

Sharif was banned from office after being found guilty of hijacking Gen. Pervez Musharraf's plane in 1999. Sharif was prime minister at the time, while Musharraf was the head of Pakistan's army. Sharif has insisted the ban was politically motivated.

In its ruling on Friday, the Supreme Court said there was no evidence to support the charge of hijacking and acquitted Sharif of the charges. Prosecutor Shahadat Awan said the court's decision was unanimous.

The army ousted Sharif's government in a coup on Oct. 12, 1999, the day Sharif removed Musharraf from his post as army chief.

Musharraf then took power, and Sharif went into exile in Saudi Arabia.

Sharif returned home in 2007 and later filed an appeal against his conviction in the hijacking case that barred him from holding office.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled Sharif was not eligible for office, prompting him to lead nationwide protests against the shaky government of President Asif Ali Zardari.

Friday's ruling was the third in the past two months to lift a ban on Sharif's participating in elections and paves the way for him to contest a parliamentary ballot scheduled for 2013.

Sharif - the country's most popular politician according to polls - has made no secret of his desire to return to his position as prime minister but has said he does not want early elections.

AP-TK-17-07-09 0540GMT<.