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Pakistan Supreme Court strikes down amnesty deal

President Asif Ali Zardari could once again face charges of corruption after Pakistan's Supreme Court found that an amnesty deal that allowed many officials to serve in the government was unconstitutional.

By Carol HuangStaff Writer / December 16, 2009

Lawyers chant slogans in Islamabad Wednesday as they celebrate after the Supreme Court of Pakistan's announced its decision to strike down an amnesty that has protected President Asif Ali Zardari and some aides from corruption charges, raising the prospect of political turmoil.

Faisal Mahmood/REUTERS

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Islamabad, Pakistan

Pakistan’s Supreme Court struck down a controversial amnesty deal on Wednesday that had erased charges ranging from corruption to murder against 8,000 people, including President Asif Ali Zardari. The verdict could invite political instability at a time when Pakistan is grappling with a deadly fight against militants and US pressure to do more.

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The ruling that the 2007 National Reconciliation Ordination (NRO) is unconstitutional opens the door for existing cases to resume and for new legal challenges to be lodged against Mr. Zardari’s right to hold office.

Many Pakistanis welcomed the decision as a rare victory against corruption. Courtroom observers ran outside and chanted against Zardari and in favor of the justices’ decision to declare any acquittals under the NRO “of no legal effect.”

But it is uncertain how the Supreme Court's action will play out in the legal battle to oust Zardari as well as in the political arena.

The NRO was “the most discriminatory piece of legislation. It just stood the rule of law on its head,” says Maleeha Lodhi, a former ambassador to the United States.
“But of course it comes at a challenging and pivotal moment for Pakistan,” she continues. “A great deal with depend on what the aftermath will be.”

At the center of the storm: Zardari

The NRO was originally cast as a way to free elected officials and bureaucrats from “politically motivated” cases so they could serve in government. But many Pakistanis saw it as a get-out-of-jail free card for the political elite tied to Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Party members currently serving as defense minister, interior minister, and ambassador to the US, among others, all got a clean slate.

For Zardari, the charges lifted include questions about a $4 million country estate in England and $40 million in foreign bank accounts. His total assets amount to $1.5 billion, according to a government anticorruption body, a figure his spokesman denies. Zardari had served 11 years in jail on corruption charges but was never convicted, and in 2004 left Pakistan.

The biggest legal battle ahead, over whether Zardari can stay in office, could take months to resolve. As president, he enjoys immunity. But his opponents plan to argue that, with his corruption charges now restored, he was ineligible to run for office in the first place and must step down.

Ball in president’s court

Outside the courts, meanwhile, a political fight could break out, depending largely on how Zardari responds.

In a conciliatory move last month, he promised to effectively become a figurehead, by fulfilling a promise to transfer hefty presidential powers – the right to dismiss the prime minister, dissolve Parliament, and pick the Army chief – back to the prime minister. But Zardari could raise the stakes by mobilizing supporters to take to the streets.

Presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar says the government “will accept and honor the verdict,” but has yet to determine how to respond politically.

The uncertainty has raised concerns that the military will intervene in government, as it’s done throughout Pakistan’s 62-year history. But since taking over in 2007, Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani has largely pulled the Army out of politics. With 30,000 soldiers battling the Taliban, Army officials may feel too busy to step in anyway. And like many Pakistanis, the military brass may not mind watching Zardari fall.

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