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Pakistan lifts ban on popular party

Pakistan has suspended a court ban on politician Shahbaz Sharif and reinstated his party\’s rule in a key province, in a move likely to ease political tensions in the troubled country.

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A February 25 court decision to disqualify Sharif and his brother, former premier and main opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, from contesting elections and holding office sparked mass protests.

Authorities detained hundreds of activists in response.

Under Western pressure to defuse the crisis, the government appealed the ban and agreed to reinstate chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, bowing to a key demand from Nawaz Sharif – now the country\’s most popular politician.

“The supreme court has suspended the February 25 decision,” Syed Zafar Ali Shah, a lawyer and leader in Sharif\’s Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) party, told reporters outside the court.

The decision reinstates Shahbaz Sharif as chief minister of the country\’s most important province, Punjab.

PML-N spokesman, Siddiqul Farooq, said the court will fix a date to hear the petition of Nawaz Sharif sometime after May 7.

Workers in PML-N, the second-largest political party in the country, danced and handed out sweets in jubilation outside the court in the capital Islamabad, shouting “congratulations to the nation.”

“Thanks to Allah, our stance was just. Today a new judiciary has come into being in Pakistan. We\’ll work day and night for the welfare of our people,” Shahbaz Sharif told reporters from Lahore, the Punjab capital.

“I\’ll now be completing my agenda for people\’s welfare. A provincial cabinet meeting will be convened soon and we will consult our colleagues in the Pakistan People\’s Party (PPP) about the future course of action,” he added.

The government\’s March 16 promise to put Chaudhry back in office saw Nawaz Sharif call off a mass protest march on the capital and raised hopes of ending the debilitating political crisis in the nuclear-armed country.

Tuesday\’s stay is another significant step towards political reconciliation after Nawaz Sharif walked out of government last August on the judges\’ issue.

It comes one day after the government lifted central rule in Punjab.

The deeply unpopular President Asif Ali Zardari had put the province, home to more than 60 percent of national lawmakers and Sharif\’s power base, in the hands of one of his allies on February 25.

“The president respects the courts and court verdicts. The PPP accepts unreservedly the supreme court verdict,” presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar said in a statement.

“It is hoped that the restoration of government in Punjab will take the process of reconciliation further forward and help in diluting the bitterness generated recently,” Babar said.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani called Shahbaz Sharif and “congratulated” him on the restoration of his government, an official at the premier\’s office told AFP.

Analysts also welcomed the suspension.

“The decision is likely to provide a reconciliatory environment and they have to learn to co-exist,” Zafarullah Khan, director of the independent, Islamabad-based Centre for Civic Education, told AFP.

Political parties have long battled for control of the huge province, where the PPP had wanted to establish its own government.

A court in Lahore ruled in June that Nawaz Sharif, ousted by then military ruler Pervez Musharraf in a 1999 coup, was ineligible to stand in a by-election because of criminal convictions.

He was convicted of “hijacking” a Pakistani commercial airliner carrying Musharraf after denying the aircraft landing rights while he was prime minister, on October 12, 1999. The plane eventually landed and Musharraf seized power.

Sharif\’s brother, who has been acquitted of murder charges, was disqualified on the grounds of defaulting bank loans and ridiculing the judiciary.

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