ISLAMABAD (AP) – Pakistan’s top court has declared an amnesty that had protected the president from corruption charges was illegal, state and private TV outlets reported.
The ruling Wednesday paves the way for challenges to President Asif Ali Zardari’s shaky rule and adds to political turbulence just as the U.S. wants Islamabad to step up its fight against militants.
The court decision apparently also leaves thousands of other officials, including Cabinet ministers loyal to Zardari, facing reopened corruption and other criminal cases. That prospect is sure to further weaken the U.S.-backed leader, who is unpopular and under pressure to give up much of his power.
Babar Awan, a Cabinet minister and aide to Zardari, told the private Express news channel that the government would comment on the court ruling after reviewing the detailed judgment.
The amnesty was part of a U.S-brokered deal with former military ruler Pervez Musharraf that paved the way for former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to return home from self-exile and take part in politics without facing cases her party says were politically motivated. Zardari, Bhutto’s husband, took control of the party after Bhutto was assassinated in 2007.
The amnesty, known as the National Reconciliation Ordinance, had angered ordinary Pakistanis and civil rights activists because they said it protected the wealthy elite who govern the impoverished, corruption-plagued nation from being punished for their alleged crimes.
As president, Zardari has immunity from prosecution. But his opponents are now expected to challenge his eligibility for the post, arguing that if it were not for the amnesty, he would not have been able to run for president. Analysts and legal experts are divided over whether such a push will succeed, and the process is likely to take months.
Zardari was democratically elected and heads the largest party in parliament. Even some of his critics argue that stopping him midterm, something that would likely require a nod from the still-powerful army, would represent a setback to Pakistan’s transition to democractic rule after years of military government.
Zardari, 54, has long been haunted by corruption allegations dating back to governments led by his late wife, Bhutto. He spent several years in prison under previous administrations. He denies any wrongdoing. The amnesty had been protecting Zardari from six graft cases dating back to the late 1990s. One case alleges he misappropriated $1.5 billion. The president’s office has declared the cases “unproven politically motivated allegations.”