Pakistan's Zardari Under Pressure After Ruling

The Supreme Court in Pakistan has nullified a sweeping amnesty that allowed President Asif Ali Zardari to return from exile two years ago. The ruling sets in motion legal proceedings that could challenge Zardari's legitimacy because of corruption charges that were put on hold while he is in office. Thousands of other Pakistani officials had been protected by the amnesty as well.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

As world leaders ponder the future of the planet, the president of Pakistan has to think of his own immediate future. President Asif Ali Zardari faces a possible challenge to his right to hold office. He is only in Pakistan right now thanks to an amnesty law couple of years ago that allowed him to return from exile. That amnesty blotted out old corruption charges. Now, Pakistan's Supreme Court has rejected the amnesty.

NPR's Julie McCarthy was in the court room for this decision, and she's on the line from Pakistan. Hi, Julie.

JULIE MCCARTHY: Hi, there, Steve.

INSKEEP: What does this decision mean?

MCCARTHY: Well, you know, it's far reaching, really, and it's been hailed as a ruling that could the change the course of the country's political history. The court basically said this amnesty decree that had benefited the political elite, including President Zardari and his late wife, Benazir Bhutto, is void ab initio. That's a fancy way of saying from the beginning.

It basically said it never happened, and it ordered all the legal cases that fell under the amnesty to be reopened. Acquittals are set aside. Convictions are reinstated. So the court said, basically, it had created two classes of people: one that was allowed to get away with crimes, and everyone else who wasn't.

In fact, ordinary convicts are now claiming discrimination because the amnesty was only for political influentials.

INSKEEP: So, President Zardari now has his criminal record back. What does that mean for him?

MCCARTHY: Well, most importantly, there is no question of President Zardari resigning. That's the word from the presidential palace. He has been under pressure to hand back powers, sweeping powers, that he had inherited from General Pervez Musharraf, who came before him.

And the decision ratchets up pressure on him to get rid of those powers. But Zardari is under no compulsion to vacate his office, because the constitution says he's immune. He's immune from any criminal proceedings, as long as he's in office. But we are likely to see challenges in the form of lawsuits attacking his qualification to be president. Questions about his fitness for office are going to come up as these corruption cases against him spring back to life.

INSKEEP: OK. So, what cases might President Zardari face?

MCCARTHY: Well, there are about a half a dozen involving corruption charges and misappropriation of public money. In one case, he's accused of wasting thousands of dollars to build a polo ground at the home of the prime minister when his wife had that job. You know, Benazir Bhutto was assassinated two years ago, just after she returned under this now-voided amnesty.

And all the cases implicating her husband date back to when she was in power. And the charges of plundering public money, Steve, rankled the Supreme Court the most. Much of the ill-gotten gains that Zardari is accused of amassing are offshore. They're overseas.

And the court wants to revive cases in Switzerland involving money laundering. Zardari and his wife were accused of receiving something in the order of $60 million in kickback schemes from a Swiss firm that had gotten a contract to inspect goods at the port.

So, it's messy stuff. It's going to make headlines with or without any presidential immunity, and that creates serious political problems for the president and for political stability. And this is a country that's already reeling from a war within by homegrown militants. And analysts say this is one distraction the country doesn't need, but it's going through it.

INSKEEP: Well, how is the country reacting?

MCCARTHY: Well, I'd say there's been an overwhelming positive reaction to this ruling. I'd say it was greeted with a sense of pride, especially the judiciary. The lawyers' movement was jubilant last night. They were the ones that had helped to reinstate the Supreme Court Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who issued this verdict.

One of the lawyers, a very well-known constitutional expert, called it a new social contract for Pakistan. You know, the court set up committees to track the reopened cases. The chief justice is going to monitor them, and that's all about making sure the system is fair and credible. It's destined to shake up the political landscape, but they also seem determined to establish a criminal justice system that is legitimate.

INSKEEP: NPR's Julie McCarthy is in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad. Julie, thanks very much.

MCCARTHY: Thanks, Steve.

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