Pak graft amnesty challenged
Pakistan's Supreme Court yesterday began hearing arguments to invalidate a corruption amnesty, which could open the door for graft cases to be brought against the embattled president's allies.
The hearings come as President Asif Ali Zardari fends off rock-bottom public opinion and calls from opposition parties to relinquish much of his power, and as the nation struggles to contain a violent Taliban insurgency.
Although Zardari's position as president protects him from prosecution, cases could be reopened against key figures including the interior and defence ministers, embarrassing his government and possibly implicating the president.
Acting Attorney General Shah Khawar, however, told the court as the proceedings opened that as the law was promulgated by the previous regime, "I am under instruction not to defend it."
The so-called National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) was passed in October 2007 by then-military ruler Pervez Musharraf, as he faced increasing international pressure to hold democratic elections.
It quashed charges against Zardari and his wife and ex-prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated two months later, and other politicians in an apparent gesture of reconciliation to allow them to stand for office.
Zardari's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) went on to win elections in 2008, restoring civilian rule, but the NRO expired at the end of November.
Chief justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry last week ordered the Supreme Court to hear arguments for and against the NRO, and if it decides the law was unconstitutional, some 8,000 beneficiaries could have their cases reopened.
"At the end of the arguments the bench has to decide whether the NRO was a valid piece of legislation when it was promulgated," Khawaja Haris, an advocate of the Supreme Court, told AFP.
As the hearings commenced, the 17-member bench ordered the submission of a list of all beneficiaries of the NRO.
"It is an historic occasion," said Roedad Khan, a former government official who is one of the challengers of the law.
"The courts are working independently now and we are confident those who collaborated with the military dictatorship will be defeated."
Although Zardari cannot be prosecuted, his immunity could also be challenged in court, although not in the current hearings.
Haris said, however, that many outstanding corruption cases against politicians implicated Zardari indirectly, and if there was a conviction in such a case, it could bring the government's moral authority into question.