ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - A Pakistani court disqualified Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif from parliament on Thursday, striking another blow to the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party ahead of a general election due in a few months.
The Islamabad High Court verdict against Asif is one of several judicial setbacks for the PML-N since the Supreme Court removed party founder Nawaz Sharif as prime minister in July.
Asif told Geo TV he would challenge the decision in the Supreme Court. It was not clear if he would have to relinquish control of the foreign ministry, since he could remain in charge as an adviser to the prime minister.
Asif, a close ally of Sharif, is one of the most high-profile PML-N figures in government and was among names tipped to replace Sharif when the three-time prime minister was disqualified by the Supreme Court over some undeclared income.
Sharif and other top PML-N officials have complained that the judiciary is targeting the party ahead of the general election, which is expected in July.
Usman Dar, a rival politician from Asif’s constituency in the town of Sialkot, near the Indian border, filed a petition against Asif to have him disqualified over the possession of an “iqama”, a work permit for the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The court ruled Asif did not fully disclose his status as an employee of a UAE company and therefore was “not qualified” to be in parliament.
The court removed him using Article 62 of the constitution, which stipulates parliamentarians must be “honest and righteous” and which was also used to oust Sharif.
“We have handed down this judgement with a heavy heart,” the Islamabad High Court said in its verdict.
“Not only because a seasoned and accomplished political figure stands disqualified but more so because the dreams and aspirations of 342,125 registered voters have suffered a setback,” the court added, referring to Sialkot voters.
Sharif, speaking shortly after the verdict against Asif was announced, urged party workers to mobilise ahead of the elections no matter what happens in the courts.
Sharif and some family members are facing a Supreme Court-ordered trial in an anti-corruption court, which is expected to make a ruling as early as next month. Sharif could face prison if convicted.
Sharif denies wrongdoing.
“Even if I go to jail, no one should lose heart,” he said.
Additional reporting by Asif Shahzad; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie