Pakistan bombings kill 40 as government fights for survival

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 7, 2009 

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — More than 40 Pakistanis were killed in bombings Monday in Lahore and Peshawar in the latest evidence that religious extremists who threaten to reconquer Afghanistan also threaten the stability of Pakistan.

In the eastern city of Lahore, a twin bombing at a market killed at least 34 and injured 109, according to senior local official Khusro Pervaiz. The explosions touched off a big fire at the Moon market, which women frequent, and security authorities feared that more victims are still buried under rubble. Many of the casualties were children.

In the northwestern city of Peshawar, police stopped an attacker outside a court building, but he blew himself up and killed at least 10. In the past, the Pakistani Taliban and other Islamic extremist groups had attacked military or police targets almost exclusively, but more recent attacks have been directed at civilians in public places.

President Asif Ali Zardari Monday visited the victims of Friday's bombing at a mosque used by army personnel in Rawalpindi, headquarters of the Pakistan military. Accompanying him was General Ashfaq Kayani, the army chief, a joint appearance that indicated the army and civilian leadership see eye to eye over combating terrorism.

Meanwhile, Pakistan's civilian-led government headed into new turmoil as the high court began its review of a legal amnesty for politicians and bureaucrats.

Should the court throw out the amnesty, old criminal charges could be revived against the interior and defense ministers, senior government officials and even president Zardari. Surprisingly, the government failed to mount any defense of the law.

Although Zardari enjoys immunity as president, some lawyers claim that this protection will not apply to allegations against him, mostly concerning alleged corruption, dating from the period long before he became president.

The case also opens the way for a court challenge to Zardari's eligibility to be president, in what appears to be a determined campaign by his political enemies to unseat him or severely weaken him.

President Barack Obama's newly announced plan for stabilizing Afghanistan relies heavily on Pakistan to act on its side of the border. However, Zardari and his government could instead be consumed by a fight for survival. The U.S. has invested considerable effort in building the relationship with Zardari and his civilian government, after backing a military regime in Pakistan until 2008.

The lawsuit challenging the amnesty claims that it unfairly favors a small class of people, politicians and bureaucrats, while the rest of the people of Pakistan have to fight out their cases out in the courts

"It is time to begin an operation to clean up Pakistan," said Mubashir Hasan, a former finance minister who brought the main petition, speaking outside the court. "The ruling class . . . should be swept away so that a new era can begin."

The American and British governments helped broker the amnesty in 2007 in a deal with General Pervez Musharraf, then the Pakistani president, and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. The accord enabled her to return to Pakistan from exile to contest elections without the risk of old accusations landing her in the courts.

According to Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party, corruption charges against her and Zardari, her husband, were politically motivated. Zardari, who succeeded his wife as head of the party after she was assassinated in December 2007, spent 11 years in jail in Pakistan without any charges proved against him.

The ruling Pakistan Peoples Party Lawyers helped create the amnesty, benefitted from it and unsuccessfully tried to get the law passed by parliament. Many lawyers expressed surprise that the party didn't even try to argue in court that the amnesty was necessary to revive democracy in Pakistan, by allowing exiled politicians to return.

Pakistan's independent-minded chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, has constituted an enormous bench of 17 judges to hear the case, providing strength for what could be a momentous decision.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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