ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, a key rival to President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, can return to Pakistan from exile under a Supreme Court ruling Thursday that dealt another setback to the embattled leader.
Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, another banished ex-premier, are vowing to return and lead a growing campaign to restore democracy, increasing the pressure on Musharraf to end eight years of military rule during which he has struggled to contain extremism.
Sharif and his family "have an inalienable right to enter and remain in the country as citizens of Pakistan," Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry said.
Their return should not be "hampered or obstructed" by the authorities, the court said.
Sharif hailed the ruling as "a victory for democracy and a defeat for dictatorship" and said he hoped to return "fairly soon."
Speaking at a London news conference that was broadcast on private Pakistani television stations, Sharif had harsh words for Musharraf, who ousted him in a bloodless 1999 coup and sent him into exile in Saudi Arabia.
"I don't believe in any power-sharing with Musharraf. He is a dictator. We are democrats," Sharif said. He predicted that the emboldened courts would block Musharraf's plan to continue as president.
In an interview with The Associated Press in London, Sharif said the U.S. must do more to promote democracy in Pakistan and shift its support away from Musharraf
"America must support Pakistan. It should not equate Pakistan with Musharraf, " he said. "It is being perceived America is supporting one man against 150 million people in Pakistan."
Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, a senior Cabinet minister and close Musharraf ally, acknowledged that the ruling would strengthen Musharraf's opponents.
"I was expecting it, and I think we have to accept the court verdict," he told The Associated Press.
Still, the court offered Sharif no protection against legal action threatened by the government or guarantees that he can take part in upcoming elections.
Outside the court, some 200 supporters of Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N party cheered and danced in celebration. One bearded activist slaughtered six goats as a celebratory act in front of the white marble court complex, leaving the road smeared in blood.
Ahsan Iqbal, a senior party official, said the verdict was a "major triumph for democracy and rule of law" and that Sharif would return "very soon."
"Gen. Musharraf must realize he is on the losing end," Iqbal said. "The sooner he realizes and resigns, the better it is for him."
In a question-and-answer session recorded before Thursday's verdict and shown later on state TV, Musharraf declined to say whether he would end his military role.
"I am aware of domestic and international concern on the issue of my uniform. But I want to say that I will follow the Constitution and law," he said.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said that while Sharif's case was an issue for the Pakistani legal system, U.S. officials wanted "a strengthening of Pakistan's democratic traditions."
"We've made it clear that we want to see Pakistan succeed as a moderate, modern, democratic country, led by the choice of the Pakistani people," Gallegos said.
Musharraf, who ousted Sharif in 1999 after he tried to replace him as army chief, previously vowed to prevent the exiled former leaders from returning.
But with the United States urging stronger action against Taliban and Al Qaeda militants in Pakistan, he has begun talking of the need for political reconciliation and for moderates to unite against extremism.
Musharraf and Bhutto are currently engaged in talks about a possible power-sharing deal that could help him gain a new five-year presidential term this fall.
The presidential vote, due by mid-October, is to be followed by year-end parliamentary elections, where the main opposition parties of Sharif and Bhutto hope to make gains.
Bhutto, who left Pakistan in 1999 to avoid arrest on corruption charges, insists Musharraf must give up his military post to win her party's support.