ISLAMABAD — Pakistan, a country that's critical to the U.S.-led war on terrorism, Friday appeared to be sliding toward a judicial coup, in which judges are moving to oust top officials in the civilian government, but without putting the military, or anyone else, in charge.
Courts summoned dozens of senior members of the ruling political party and were on the verge of issuing an arrest warrant for Interior Minister Rehman Malik as they followed up a landmark Supreme Court decision this week that nullified a legal amnesty that had shielded politicians from long-standing corruption charges.
The U.S. relies on Pakistan for transit of most supplies NATO forces in Afghanistan and has pressed the government to crack down on al Qaida and Afghan militants who have sanctuary in the lawless border region, but top U.S. officials are playing down the crisis as an internal matter for Pakistan.
Just who's running this nuclear-armed country of 165 million — the independent judiciary or another arm of the state — is unclear. The government, led by President Asif Ali Zardari, appeared paralyzed, and a creeping change in command seemed to be under way.
"It's complete (judicial) control now," said Asma Jahangir, the chair of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent watchdog. "The issue is whether the (democratic) system is going to pack up again (and go away)." She asked why the judiciary was "again" letting itself be used by "the establishment?"
Jahangir, a U.N. special human rights envoy, said the judiciary wouldn't have acted so boldly unless it felt confident of backing.
The army, which has dominated the country for most of its existence, is Pakistan's traditional power center, but it's strongly denied that it will interfere in politics again since democracy was restored last year. The U.S. has also said repeatedly that the Pakistani military is staying out of politics.
"It seems to me that Zardari's administration has lost its moral authority to govern. Power is slipping away," said Najam Sethi, an analyst and newspaper editor. "People are looking instead towards the chief justice . . . . The military is pretending to be out of it, but the military will have a very decisive say in everything."
The amnesty, which the U.S. and British governments had helped mediate, set the stage for the return to civilian rule by allowing Malik, Zardari and many others to return from exile to the country without fear of prosecution. Malik had been living in London after fleeing Pakistan in 1998. Defense Minister Ahmed Mukhtar, stopped from leaving the country Thursday night on an official trip to China, claimed that his name was wrongly put on the list of those who had been covered by the amnesty.
Pakistan's National Accountability Bureau, the official anti-corruption watchdog, went to the courts for the summonses and in Malik's case requested an arrest warrant to pursue corruption allegations going back over a decade, his lawyer said.
At the same time, courts issued summonses to dozens of senior members of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party, including secretary-general Jahangir Badar, Salman Farooqi, Zardari's top aide, and Nusrat Bhutto, the elderly and infirm mother of the late former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, the Accountability Bureau said. Farooqi got pre-arrest bail.
Malik's lawyer, Khawaja Naveed, rushed to a court in the southern city of Karachi and prevented the issuing of the arrest warrant, which had been placed before a judge.
"The warrant has converted into a summons," Naveed told McClatchy.
After his lawyer gave assurances that the minister would turn up, the court summoned Malik to appear on Jan. 8.
Three cases against Malik were dropped under the amnesty. One of the allegations is the "embezzlement of funds on account of un-authorized release of imported Yellow Cab Cars", according to documents given to the Supreme Court. The sum involved is listed as $165,000.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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