Pakistan's Supreme Court throws wrench into terror fight

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 16, 2009 

ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's Supreme Court struck down a political amnesty law Wednesday and ordered corruption cases against the country's pro-Western President, Asif Ali Zardari, and thousands of other politicians reopened.

The decision throws Pakistan, a crucial ally in the U.S. war against Islamic extremists, into a political crisis that's likely to undermine Zardari, divert his government and strengthen the country's military leaders, who so far have disregarded the Obama administration's requests to move against al Qaida, Afghan militants based in Pakistan and Pakistani militant groups.

Marvin Weinbaum, a former State Department intelligence analyst who's now with the Washington-based Middle East Institute, said the high court ruling will neutralize Zardari and could force him to resign.

"He's toast," Weinbaum said of Zardari. Weinbaum added that he expects decision-making power increasingly would revert to Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, who's widely considered an ally of the military leadership.

Gilani's "going to do what the army wants him to do," he said.

In a stinging verdict, the Supreme Court ordered that foreign court cases dropped under the amnesty must be pursued again, and it ordered action in a Swiss lawsuit in which Zardari faces a $60 million money-laundering charge.

Zardari is determined to cling to his position, aides said, but the decision is likely to tie up his government in a barrage of litigation. It also could force the resignation of several government ministers who also must face old court cases against them, including Interior Minister Rehman Malik and Defense Minister Ahmed Mukhtar, both key players in the struggle against armed Islamic militants.

Pakistan's ambassador to the U.S., Husain Haqqani, a highly regarded diplomat, was also listed in the court as a beneficiary of the amnesty, although he denies ever having taken advantage of it.

As president, Zardari in theory is shielded by immunity, but the limits of that protection will now be tested in the courts. Zardari has said he considers all the cases against him, which date back to the 1990s, to be politically motivated.

Zardari's Pakistan Peoples Party claims that it's the victim of a vendetta by the country's security establishment, a view that emerged in court when the government's lawyer, Kamal Azfar, said the democratic system faced danger from "GHQ and the CIA." He was referring to the general headquarters of the Pakistan army and the American intelligence agency.

"Zardari has immunity under Article 248 (of the constitution) for criminal cases but there's no such umbrella on the civil side," said Ahmed Raza Kasuri, a senior lawyer opposed to Zardari. "This verdict will open up a Pandora's box. There's no immunity from civil cases."

Zardari's eligibility to hold the office of president will be challenged in the civil courts, lawyers said.

"Our reading of the constitution is that, while a president is in office, no criminal case can be initiated or continued against him in any court," said Farhatullah Babar, the presidential spokesman. "We believe that the president is not affected (by the verdict)."

The court issued its ruling on a challenge to the National Reconciliation Ordinance, a 2007 amnesty brokered by the U.S. and British governments to enable exiled Pakistani leaders to return to the country without the fear of prosecution.

The court ruled that the amnesty was illegal because it was discriminatory; favoring a small category of people, while the rest of the population was left to continue to fight its cases in the courts.

The amnesty "created a divide amongst ordinary citizens of Pakistan and a class of alleged criminals who statedly have committed crimes of murder, dacoity (robbery), rape, looting/plundering of money/resources of this nation," the 17-judge court ruled.

In an extraordinary step, the court set up a monitoring unit, headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry himself, to ensure that the cases are now pursued. Chaudhry, a fiercely independent-minded judge, was removed from office in 2007 by Pakistan's former military ruler Pervez Musharraf and only restored to his post this year after a popular street agitation movement.

The judgment ordered that additional special courts be set up to hear the 8,000 cases that were dropped under the amnesty. It also ruled that the former attorney general of the country should be prosecuted for improperly asking the Swiss authorities to drop the charges against Zardari; and it asked the government to replace the top personnel of the official anti-corruption watchdog, who "it is not possible for us to trust" to pursue the cases.

"A bogus 'reconciliation' was washed away today," said Mubashir Hasan, the lead petitioner in the case and a former finance minister, speaking after the verdict on the courthouse steps. "We are accused of being a corrupt nation. But this judgment has shown that we are ready to take measures to being a good name to Pakistan."

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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