ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Former premier Benazir Bhutto can return to Pakistan from exile but will have to face corruption cases against her, the government said, as her party prepared to announce her arrival date Friday.
Pakistani newspapers cited unnamed party sources as saying Bhutto would come back in late October.
Bhutto, who is in talks with President Gen. Pervez Musharraf that could see them share power after elections, would not be deported in the manner of another former premier, Nawaz Sharif, a government spokesman said. Sharif was expelled hours after he flew in on Monday.
That action sidelined Musharraf's chief political rival while underlining the general's willingness to take authoritarian steps to extend his eight-year rule, amid a surge in attacks by Islamic militants that has rocked Pakistan.
In an interview Friday, Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azim drew a clear distinction between the rights of Sharif and Bhutto to return to Pakistan.
"Nawaz Sharif's case was different. He went back to Saudi Arabia because of an undertaking he had with the Saudi government," Azim told The Associated Press. "She (Bhutto) was always allowed to come back."
Asked about pending corruption cases against Bhutto, he added: "It's for the law to take its own course. Everybody has to face cases against them and the same applies to her."
Azim said the talks with Bhutto were continuing, but sticking points remained, including her desire for the corruption cases to be closed, her seeking a constitutional amendment to let her seek a third term as prime minister, and over the president's re-election.
"The talks are continuing but not at the same pace we might have wished. It's in the national interest for a resolution between political leaders to be reached. But it should be in the national interest, not in the personal interest of anyone," Azim said.
Bhutto has led her party from London and Dubai after leaving Pakistan in 1999 over the corruption allegations. Her party said it would announce her return date at simultaneous press conferences at key Pakistan cities Friday afternoon.
She risks a backlash among the public and her party if she strikes an agreement with the U.S.-allied military leader, who ousted Sharif in a 1999 coup.
On Friday, Sharif's party warned her against reaching terms with Musharraf.
"We welcome her coming back, but let me say that it will be an insult to democracy if she agrees to share power with a man who ousted the elected government of Nawaz Sharif and has caused irreparable damage to democratic institutions," said Sadiq ul-Farooq, a senior figure in the party.
Musharraf, a key ally with Washington, has been trying for months to reach an agreement with Bhutto that would overcome legal obstacles to him seeking a new five-year term.
With less than five weeks before the presidential election, Bhutto's party says time is running out, though with Sharif out of the way, Musharraf may be in a stronger position to dictate terms.
Azim said the schedule for the presidential vote would be announced in the next three or four days. General elections are due by January.
Azim confirmed reports that the chief of the ruling party, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, had suggested that Musharraf's wife, Sebha, could be a back-up candidate for the presidency if Musharraf was ruled as ineligible to run.
He defended the notion as "traditional" in Pakistani politics.
"I don't know if it would be acceptable to the president or his wife," Azim said.