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Pakistan government bows before judiciary in corruption case

By Shaiq Hussain and Michele Langevine Leiby,

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Wednesday ended a three-year confrontation with the nation’s political leadership by approving a government-issued letter that asks authorities in Switzerland to reopen a long-dormant corruption case there against President Asif Ali Zardari.

Until now, the government had refused to send the letter, on grounds that the president enjoyed constitutional immunity. The refusal led to the ouster of the previous prime minister and threatened removal of the current one.

The allegations against Zardari date to the 1990s, when he and his late wife, former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, were accused of laundering about $12 million in kickbacks through Swiss bank accounts.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was held in contempt in April and later dismissed by the Supreme Court for his refusal to send the “Swiss letter.” The court this summer served a contempt notice on his replacement, Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf.

The power struggles between the judiciary and the executive branch threatened to topple an already fragile government at a time when U.S. officials were attempting to restore Washington’s counterterrorism alliance with Pakistan, which is seen as a key player in efforts to end the war in Afghanistan.

Ashraf finally told the court last month that his government was willing to write the letter. But experts say Zardari is unlikely to face any charges because the 15-year statute of limitations has expired. The president denies the corruption allegations.

The case against Zardari was frozen after he assumed office in 2008. At the time, an ordinance was in effect that granted amnesty to about 8,000 people, most of them bureaucrats and politicians, who had been accused of corruption, terrorism and murder between Jan. 1, 1986, and Oct.12, 1999 — a period between two eras of martial law in Pakistan.

The amnesty ordinance, issued by Gen. Pervez Musharraf, then Pakistan’s military ruler, allowed Benazir Bhutto to return to Pakistan in October 2007 after nine years of self-imposed exile without fear of facing pending corruption charges. She was assassinated two months later.

In December 2009, the Supreme Court, headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, voided the controversial ordinance and revived all cases it had closed.

Before the court’s approval of the letter Wednesday, the government had presented two drafts, which were turned down on grounds that they did not comply with the judges’ directives.

Law Minister Farooq Naek, who presented the draft that the court approved, said Wednesday: “I am answerable to the judiciary, to the government and to God Almighty, and I have not come to the court to violate the country’s laws.”

The letter said all the old amnesty cases should be reopened. Naek asked that the contempt notice against Ashraf be withdrawn, but the judges said that would happen only after the Swiss prosecutors received the letter.

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