ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — Pakistan's political opposition Tuesday launched a legal challenge to the deportation of a prominent rival of President Pervez Musharraf a day earlier, spearheading what was described as a broader campaign aimed at toppling the military leader.
In an echo of the country's political turmoil, the volatile region near the Afghan border was hit by new violence. At least 18 people were killed in a suicide bombing in a village near the town of Dera Ismail Khan, in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province.
In Islamabad, the capital, lawyers for former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's party filed a petition with the Supreme Court challenging his deportation. The judicial panel has been a highly charged venue in the growing confrontation between Musharraf and democracy activists.
Within hours of landing at Islamabad's international airport Monday, Sharif was forcibly put aboard a flight to Saudi Arabia, where he has spent most of the last seven years in exile after being ousted by Musharraf in a coup in 1999. His party's petition says the deportation was in direct defiance of a Supreme Court ruling last month that the ex-leader had an "inalienable" right to return to his homeland.
"Nawaz Sharif was illegally abducted, and the architect of this unlawful act is Gen. Pervez Musharraf," senior party official Khawaja Asif said outside the court.
Asif is one of the few senior members of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz faction to have escaped a roundup of party leaders in the hours before Sharif's arrival. Party officials say about 5,000 lower-level activists were picked up as well. The government acknowledges holding about 1,000 people.
The petition also asks the court to levy contempt charges against senior members of Musharraf's administration, including Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz and Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao.
"Defying the [earlier] verdict was the clearest possible show of contempt, and we believe the court will support that view," Sharif's brother and political colleague, Shahbaz, said by telephone from London.
The high court, whose chief justice Musharraf tried to fire this year, is hearing several cases on the legality of his rule. The two main questions are whether he can be voted to a new term in coming months while retaining his role as army chief of staff, and whether that vote can be held by lame-duck national and provincial assemblies.
The government's decision to disregard the court on Sharif's right to return has raised fears that Musharraf might also brush off rulings on the legality of his election plan, which are expected soon. Many analysts think that if he feels stymied by the Supreme Court, he might impose emergency rule or martial law.
Opposition rallies Tuesday denouncing Sharif's deportation were small and scattered, but his party said the arrest of so many activists had had a chilling effect.
Some of the considerable popular anger over the deportation was directed at the United States, Musharraf's chief patron. At one demonstration in the eastern city of Lahore, Sharif's main power base, protesters chanted, "America has a dog in uniform!"
It has been widely reported in the media here that the Bush administration hopes for a power-sharing deal between Musharraf and another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, who is considered more friendly to the West than is Sharif.
On Monday, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack discounted questions about whether the U.S. had any hand in Sharif's deportation, saying simply, "It's a matter for the Pakistanis to resolve."
Although U.S. officials are reluctant to appear to be taking sides, some acknowledge privately that they have been pushing for a deal between Musharraf and Bhutto, which they believe would strengthen the Pakistani president's domestic support and steer him away from more authoritarian steps.
Pakistan's media have remained robustly opinionated in the face of what journalists call intimidation by the government. Most major newspapers described the deportation of Sharif as a sign of weakness.
"The forced exile of [Sharif] is an act of pure and utter desperation by a government that seems to be now operating in a panic mode," editorialized the News, an English-language daily.
Sharif's party also scoffed at the government's contention that he had gone voluntarily into exile rather than accept being jailed on corruption cases.
After being overthrown in 1999, Sharif was convicted of corruption and treason and sentenced to a life term. His party has argued that his pledge to stay in Saudi Arabia for 10 years should not be binding because it was made under duress.
Political opponents say the government appears determined to muzzle them. On Monday, Raja Riaz, vice president of the bar association in the port city of Karachi, was killed in a taxi by gunmen. Legal colleagues said they believed Riaz was assassinated because he was a vocal opponent of Musharraf. Karachi police said the assailants were unknown.
Lawyers were at the forefront of a months-long campaign against Musharraf's efforts to sideline Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, protests that grew into a nationwide pro-democracy movement.
Paralleling the anti-government protests has been a concerted campaign of suicide bombings in recent months, virtually all of them blamed on Islamic militants who have their own quarrels with Musharraf. Insurgents vowed to exact revenge after government forces stormed a radical mosque in Islamabad in July, a confrontation that left more than 100 people dead.
Tuesday's suicide blast outside Dera Ismail Khan targeted a pickup truck being used to ferry passengers. Survivors said the bomber appeared to be only 14 or 15 years old.
Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.