Pakistan Court Declares Amnesty Law Illegal

The Pakistan Supreme Court declared Wednesday that an amnesty granted to thousands of people, including the country's president, is illegal. The move opens the door for prosecutions on a range of offenses, both criminal and civil.

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Pakistan's high court has struck down a controversial amnesty decree, one that had protected President Asif Ali Zardari from prosecution on corruption charges. By declaring the law null and void the court said that all cases that had been dismissed by the decree now stand reopened and that includes graft allegations involving President Zardari.

NPR's Julie McCarthy was at the High Court, and she has this report.

JULIE MCCARTHY: The Supreme Court's decision represents a serious blow to President Zardari, whose hold on power is already tenuous.

(Soundbite of protest)

Unidentified Group: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: Lawyers greeted the High Court's denunciation of the amnesty that Zardari and other political figures enjoyed with a slogan first adopted in their struggle to oust military strongman Pervez Musharraf. Tonight, it echoed off the steps of the Supreme Court as a commentary on the political fortunes of President Zardari. Give one more push to the crumbling wall, they chanted. Zardari is in office by virtue of the amnesty, which was granted by his predecessor General Musharraf.

Attorneys told the Supreme Court's 17 justices that the amnesty ordinance was nothing more than a gambit by Musharraf to remain in office. He sought a power sharing arrangement with Benezir Bhutto, and her price for the compromise was complete immunity for herself and her husband, now, President Zardari. The corruption charges Zardari faces date back to the time his wife served as prime minister.

Presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar said tonight that government will respect the court decision, but he added that the constitution provides immunity to President Zardari as long as he is in office.

Mr. FARHATULLAH BABAR (Presidential Spokesman, Pakistan): Therefore, we believe that as far as the president is concerned, he is not affected.

MCCARTHY: But the case has damaged the president's moral authority. And analysts say that the decision will likely generate petitions urging Zardari to step down. A snowball effect could take hold and as one attorney put it, he'll be making headlines every day for all the wrong reasons. But the president's spokesman downplayed any such suggestion.

Mr. BABAR: The president's authority he derives from the party, he derives from the fact that he has been elected by the Electoral College for the president. So that authority has not been eroded, not undermined.

MCCARTHY: Lawyers praised the court for ordering the monitoring of all cases that will now be resurrected for adjudication. Mubashir Hasan was the lead petitioner in the case.

Dr. MUBASHIR HASAN (Lead Petitioner): We are accused of being a very corrupt nation. By this judgment, we have shown that at the highest level of our judiciary, we are ready to take measures to bring good name to Pakistan and wash away this stigma.

MCCARTHY: Under the ruling, thousands of other officials, including cabinet ministers, face reopened corruption and other criminal charges.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Islamabad.

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