Pakistan stops defense minister from making official trip

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 17, 2009 

ISLAMABAD — Pakistani authorities took steps Thursday to block two officials key to the war on terror from leaving the country because a Supreme Court decision Wednesday bars them from traveling abroad while they're facing revived corruption charges.

Defense Minister Ahmed Mukhtar was prevented from boarding a flight at Islamabad's airport for an official visit to China, unaware that his name was on the exit control list. He was traveling with Pakistan's naval chief for a ceremony to take delivery of Chinese-made ships for Pakistan's navy.

Although the Pakistani Interior Ministry is in charge of the list, Interior Minister Rehman Malik also is among the 248 politicians and top bureaucrats who are barred from traveling abroad without special permission.

The high court ruling that an amnesty for top politicians and officials was unconstitutional and corruption cases should be revived against President Asif Ali Zardari and others has dimmed the prospects for greater Pakistani cooperation in the U.S.-led campaign against Islamic extremists and has weakened Zardari's civilian government.

If such cooperation isn't forthcoming, anonymous U.S. officials have been quoted in The New York Times as threatening to step up pilotless drone attacks on militants in Pakistan, and U.S. drones fired missiles Thursday into the North Waziristan tribal region bordering Afghanistan, a stronghold of Taliban and al Qaida extremists. The two strikes hit suspected militant hideouts, reportedly killing 17 people.

North Waziristan is a sanctuary for the Haqqani network, considered the most dangerous Afghan insurgent group, and is under close U.S. surveillance.

If the strikes were meant in part to prod the reluctant Pakistanis to send troops into North Waziristan, however, they were hardly noted in Islamabad, where the restriction on the movements of top government officials left many wondering whether the courts had taken charge of the government.

"Why was I stopped? You'll have to ask the chief justice of Pakistan," an angry-sounding Mukhtar told Pakistani news media. "It was a very important visit. . . . I was very embarrassed, as the Chinese ambassador had come to see me off."

The State Department, meanwhile, warned that U.S. economic and counter-terrorism assistance programs for Pakistan could be hobbled by "months" of Pakistani government foot-dragging on "hundreds" of visa applications submitted by American diplomats and aid contractors.

"If this continues, it will indeed have an impact on our ability to do the work that we want to do to help the Pakistani people," State Department spokesman Robert Wood said. "This is a big concern to us. We've raised it at very senior levels."

Wood denied that there was a "deliberate campaign" of harassment against U.S. diplomats, but added that, "I can't give you any reason why they've (the visas) been delayed."

Although Zardari is among those who benefited from the amnesty's removal of long-standing charges of corruption, it's unclear whether he's also been barred from leaving the country. Presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar said he didn't think that Zardari was on the exit control list and that the president was immune from prosecution in criminal cases, so the bar might not apply to him.

Opposition leaders, however, demanded Zardari's resignation Thursday.

"He (Zardari) should quit this office in his own interest as well as in the interest of his party and the system," said Khawaja Asif, a senior member of the opposition party Pakistan Muslim League-N.

Zardari, however, shows every sign of fighting back and asserts that his political enemies are running a campaign to vilify him.

"I've never seen the president so buoyant," Babar told McClatchy as he left Zardari's office late Thursday. "We are going to defend ourselves. The president has made it absolutely clear that he will stay."

"Let them chase us out, and let the whole world see who is doing the chasing," he said.

In its landmark ruling Wednesday, the high court ordered a renewal of a case against Zardari in Switzerland that had been dropped last year as part of the amnesty.

Documents presented to the court this week showed that Zardari or his associates had access to 11 bank accounts in Switzerland containing a total of $59.5 million. There was a "set of jewelry" worth $190,000 in the total.

The Swiss allegations center on a contract awarded in 1994 to two Swiss companies, Cotecna and Societe Generale de Surveillance, to inspect customs in Pakistan. In return for handing the Swiss companies the business, $12 million allegedly was paid to Zardari and his associates. The prime minister at the time was the late Benazir Bhutto, Zardari's wife.

Swiss authorities said that they had yet to receive an official request from Pakistan to revive the case. Switzerland also will have to consider whether Zardari's immunity from prosecution, as the president of Pakistan, extends to other countries.

Zardari's opponents in Pakistan plan to challenge his presidential immunity in the courts. During its hearing this week, the Supreme Court was told that six corruption cases had been dropped against Zardari as a result of the amnesty.

As well as the $60 million charge in Switzerland and a related "illegal award of contract to Cotecna," there was a $22.6 million case related to the "loss to government" from awarding a license to import gold to Pakistan to an alleged crony, "corruption in the purchase of Ursus tractors" worth $3.2 million, the "illegal construction of a polo ground" at the prime minister's official residence at a cost of $646,000 and a $1.5 billion charge of having "assets beyond means."

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this article from Washington.)

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