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Pakistan's top court nullifies amnesty for Zardari, other officials

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 17, 2009; A12

ISLAMABAD -- Pakistan's Supreme Court nullified on Wednesday a controversial deal that had given President Asif Ali Zardari and thousands of other government officials amnesty from prosecution on corruption charges, a decision likely to further weaken Zardari's shaky hold on power.

The ruling could open the door to additional legal challenges against Zardari. Although he still has immunity from prosecution under the constitution, opponents plan to contest that by arguing that Zardari is technically ineligible for the presidency.

The court decision comes as the United States pushes for an expanded strategic partnership with Pakistan to help combat the growing threat from Islamist extremist groups, including the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The United States is sending 30,000 additional troops to neighboring Afghanistan and wants Pakistan to step up efforts on its side of the border to keep militants from finding refuge there.

But Zardari's ability to make decisions about the level of Pakistani cooperation with the United States has been compromised by his struggle to simply hold on to his job -- a task likely to be made more difficult by the court ruling.

The ripple effects

The decision to overturn the amnesty deal had been expected, but the 17-member Supreme Court panel went further, requesting that Swiss authorities open years-old corruption cases against Zardari that had been set aside.

It was unclear whether the ruling Wednesday would have any bearing on the decisions of the Swiss courts. Zardari is suspected to have received millions in illegal commissions from two Swiss companies, and he was convicted in 2003 on money laundering charges by a Swiss magistrate. The conviction was later suspended. Zardari has denied the allegations and has said they are politically motivated.

The Pakistani court's ruling had the immediate effect of reopening cases against thousands of politicians and bureaucrats that had been frozen under the amnesty deal. Four government ministers had been protected under the amnesty. One, Interior Minister Rehman Malik, had been convicted and may now be forced to appeal his conviction.

The amnesty deal, known as the National Reconciliation Ordinance, was forged in 2007 as part of an agreement between former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and then-President Pervez Musharraf. The U.S.-backed deal allowed Bhutto and her husband, Zardari, to return to Pakistan without facing prosecution over long-standing corruption allegations.

Bhutto was assassinated months later, and Zardari succeeded her as leader of the Pakistan People's Party. After the PPP won elections last year and Musharraf stepped down, Zardari became president.

President vs. the people

In the hearings leading up to the court's decision, the government had not defended the unpopular deal. But the ruling is likely to be a major distraction for the government as prosecutors dust off old cases. The Supreme Court said it would establish a special commission to ensure the cases are prosecuted vigorously.

Zardari spokesman Farhatullah Babar said the government would respect the court's decision, but he reiterated that the president, by virtue of his office, remained immune from prosecution under the constitution. "We believe this does not affect the president of Pakistan," he said.

Others had different ideas. Roedad Khan, a retired civil servant who was one of the petitioners who had challenged the amnesty, said the decision would "destroy" Zardari.

Khan called Zardari "a man who has looted and plundered this poor country. Is there one law for Zardari and one law for the 160 million people of Pakistan? No, there is one law for everyone."

Zardari is deeply unpopular in Pakistan, in large part because of persistent rumors of corruption. He spent 11 years in prison in Pakistan but was not convicted.

Still, opponents argue that he is not eligible for the presidency because of the suspended Swiss conviction and because he fled Pakistan rather than appear in court to face charges. Under the constitution, a person convicted of a crime is ineligible to be president.

Abdul Hafeez Pirzada, a veteran lawyer who argued that the amnesty deal should be nullified, called the decision "a victory for truth" and "a victory for the country." He predicted that "many public office holders will be relieved of their services" because of the ruling.

Wednesday's decision deepens the divide between Zardari and the Supreme Court, particularly its independent-minded chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry. The chief justice had been removed from his job by Musharraf, and Zardari angered many lawyers because he took months to reinstate Chaudhry.

In addition to facing judicial challenges, Zardari's weak civilian government has had an uneasy relationship with the military, which has run this country for about half its history. On a visit to Pakistan this week, Gen. David H. Petraeus, chief of U.S. Central Command, told Pakistani journalists that he saw no reason to think that the military intended to seize power. Special correspondent Shaiq Hussain contributed to this report.

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