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.
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.
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.
'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.”