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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.

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At the least, the NRO could distract the government from pressing issues like fighting militants. Even before the Supreme Court announced its decision, Zardari was holding a flurry of meetings with party leaders to discuss the case, reported Dawn, a leading Pakistani daily. Senior party member Abida Hussain denies that politics will sidetrack the government. “It’s not the ministers and the senators who go out and hunt for the militants,” she says.

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'A little bit of hope in Pakistan’

The NRO generated controversy from the moment it was brokered in October 2007 by the US and Britain, which were trying to shore up then-President Pervez Musharraf, who was unpopular but an important US ally. Under the agreement, Zardari’s late wife, Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister and widely admired figure, would return from exile cleared of corruption charges and join the government to boost its legitimacy.

Lawyers challenged the NRO’s constitutionality immediately, but within weeks, Mr. Musharraf replaced the Supreme Court with justices who declined to hear the case.

The original judges remained deposed until March 2009, when lawyers from across the country marched toward Islamabad in a dramatic show of civic force, demanding their reinstatement. By then, Zardari had taken over as president and reneged on his promise to restore the judges. But under the immense pressure of the “lawyers’ movement,” he relented, and Pakistanis cheered the milestone for justice.

In July, the restored Supreme Court declared that the NRO could stand only if it were passed into law by Parliament within 120 days. Zardari’s ruling party was unable to secure enough votes, so on Nov. 30, the amnesty expired. A week later, the Supreme Court agreed to hold hearings on whether the NRO was constitutional.

Despite the uncertainty going forward, events so far look promising, says Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a political scientist at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. “I see a little bit of hope in Pakistan because things have happened step by step, independence of the judiciary, now the constitutional issues being settled, and now the big one is, how to resolve all these corruption cases.”

Many Pakistanis see the case less as a crusade against corruption than as a politically motivated drive to oust Zardari, who otherwise would remain in office for five years. “The genesis of the case comes from the hostility between the judges and the government.... They are after his blood,” says Mr. Hyder, a civil servant who walked over from his office next door to hear the decision. “Every Pakistani thinks every politician is corrupt," he says, ticking off other powerful political families that "should also be tried."

But most Pakistanis also see the deeply unpopular president – nicknamed “Mr. Ten Percent” for the kickbacks he supposedly charged – as a fair target, Professor Rais says.

“The NRO is really a noose around Zardari and his colleagues,” he says. “How will they react? That is the issue.”