Pakistan Amnesty Law Under Legal Scrutiny

Pakistan's Supreme Court began hearing challenges Monday to an amnesty that has protected the country's president and his allies from corruption charges. If the court declares the controversial amnesty to be unconstitutional, hundreds of cases ranging from graft to murder cold reopen.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

There was more violence in Pakistan today. At least 34 people died in synchronized bomb attacks at a busy market in Lahore. Ten others were killed in a suicide bombing in Peshawar.

SIEGEL: The attacks came on a day when Pakistan's supreme court began proceedings that could invalidate a controversial amnesty law. That law protects President Asif Ali Zardari from prosecution on corruption charges.

NPR's Julie McCarthy was at the court in Islamabad and has this report.

JULIE McCARTHY: The amnesty bears the name NRO for National Reconciliation Ordinance, but the lead counsel arguing against the law said the only reconciling had been between members of the ruling elite. General Pervez Musharraf promulgated the amnesty, hoping for a power sharing arrangement with Benazir Bhutto that never happened.

Under the amnesty enjoyed by hundreds, former Prime Minister Bhutto and her husband - now President Zardari - returned from exile, free of what they considered politically motivated cases.

Attorney Salman Raja told the court, the immunity was tantamount to affirmative action for the haves that deprive the have-nots of equal treatment under the law.

Mr. SALMAN RAJA (Lawyer): So the intent seems to be to provide a cover, a blanket to people who might have been involved in cases during a particular period of time. But we say, in any case, you cannot make a law which absolves the so-called holders of public office from the normal investigation and judicial processes that everybody else in the country has to face.

McCARTHY: Bhutto's husband inherited the mantle of the Peoples Party upon his wife's assassination. There is widespread bitterness that President Zardari, who has been dogged by corruption charges, was protected by the amnesty.

Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry said ordinary convicts were petitioning him on the grounds that they had been denied what influential politicians, bureaucrats and military officers had received.

Preeminent constitutional expert Abdul Hafeez Pirzada says if the court declares the amnesty unconstitutional, there are serious implications for those who benefited, including President Zardari.

Mr. ABDUL HAFEEZ PIRZADA (Law Minister): If the court holds that this law was a void law - void, that it never existed - then everything reopens automatically.

McCARTHY: All corruption, financial malfeasance and even murder cases covered by the amnesty will be resurrected, Pirzada says. The supreme court justice demanded that the government produce a list of everyone who was a beneficiary under the amnesty. The government today chose not to defend the amnesty law.

Roedad Khan, a veteran civil servant and activist was among the first to challenge the amnesty law. At the close of the hearing, he said no less than the future of Pakistan was at stake.

Mr. ROEDAD KHAN (Former Senior Civil Servant): Is this country going to be governed in accordance with the views and the consent of the people of Pakistan? Or is it going to be governed in accordance with an infamous ordinance launched by a military dictator? And are people going to be allowed, you know, to derive benefit?

McCARTHY: Attorneys told the court that in just one day in just one province, 353 cases against powerful people had been terminated by the amnesty law, 144 of them murder charges.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Islamabad.

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