Reversal of Amnesty Law Roils Pakistani Politics

BY Larisa Epatko  December 17, 2009 at 4:31 PM EDT

A day after Pakistan’s Supreme Court overturned an amnesty law for thousands of politicians, including President Asif Ali Zardari, opposition groups renewed pressure on the president to resign.

The National Reconciliation Ordinance — implemented by former President Pervez Musharraf in 2007 — was aimed at letting former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto back into the country without facing legal problems when establishing a possible coalition government with Musharraf. But Bhutto was killed while campaigning for office weeks after her return.

Bhutto’s husband Zardari took the helm of the Pakistan People’s Party and with other politicians, created enough pressure on Musharraf to force him to resign. Zardari later became president, though he continued to be shadowed by allegations of corruption.

Zardari has spent a total of 11 years in jail on charges ranging from corruption to murder, although he was never convicted of any crimes. He is still protected from prosecution under presidential immunity, but Wednesday’s court decision allows his opponents to challenge his eligibility as president.

“After the Supreme Court verdict, all the cases against the NRO beneficiaries all over Pakistan have been reopened,” Salar Ghazni Khan, spokesman for the National Accountability Bureau, told the Agence France-Presse.

“He should quit this office in his own interest as well as in the interest of his party and the system. He can get any member of his party elected to the post,” said Khawaja Mohammad Asif of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) party. “He will achieve the high moral ground,” he said, quoted Reuters.

The NRO had shielded about 8,000 politicians as well, who now face the possibility of renewed charges, including Interior Minister Rehman Malik, Defense Minister Ahmad Mukhtar, and Zardari’s chief of staff, Salman Farooki, lawyer and amnesty expert Babar Sattar told The New York Times.

The court ruling comes as the United States is increasing pressure on Pakistan to crack down on Taliban sanctuaries in its tribal areas and in Balochistan, along with conducting its own missile strikes on al-Qaida and Taliban strongholds, while sending billions more in non-military aid to the country.

Hassan Abbas of the Asia Society and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government said if Wednesday’s decision leads to confrontations between the executive and judiciary power centers, it could complicate U.S. policies on counter-terrorism and development assistance. “But at a different level, if this works out well, that would mean Pakistan is maturing as a country where there is a legal system in place and where internal political confrontations or political and legal issues are settled in an amicable manner,” he said. Hear more of Abbas’ description of potential impacts here.