ISLAMABAD (AP) – Pakistan’s Supreme Court began hearing petitions Monday against an expired amnesty that had protected President Asif Ali Zardari and key allies from graft charges, a case that could lead to legal challenges to the U.S.-backed leader’s rule.
A ruling against Zardari, whom opinion polls show to be unpopular, risks political turmoil just as the Obama administration and other Western allies want Pakistan to redouble its fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban near the Afghan border.
The hearing in the federal capital came as a suicide bomber struck outside a court building in the main northwest city of Peshawar, killing 10 people and wounding 45 in a fiery reminder of the threat militants pose to the nuclear-armed country.
The 17-member bench in Islamabad started hearing petitions claiming that the amnesty list of more than 8,000 people was illegal. Civil rights activists argue that it was unjust to help so many politicians escape prosecution for alleged wrongdoing.
Zardari, who has denied a slew of corruption claims against him, enjoys general immunity from prosecution as president, but the Supreme Court could choose to challenge his eligibility for the post if the amnesty is declared illegal.
Legal and political analysts are divided on whether this is likely, and most expect the process to take several months to run its course. Even some of Zardari’s critics argue it would be a mistake because it risks derailing the country’s transition to democratic rule after nine years under military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
The session came two weeks after the expiration of the amnesty, which had been granted in a U.S.-backed deal by Musharraf to allow Zardari’s late wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, to return from exile in 2007 and run for office safe in the knowledge she would not be dogged by corruption allegations that had forced her from office twice in the 1990s.
Bhutto was killed in a suicide attack before elections won by her party, and Zardari succeeded her as party leader. He was elected president in September 2008 by federal and regional lawmakers.
Speculation over Zardari’s future has escalated after he was forced to abandon an effort to get Parliament to approve the amnesty. He is under pressure to resign or relinquish sweeping powers he inherited from Musharraf to the prime minister and assume a ceremonial role.
Pakistan’s original constitution envisaged a parliamentary style of government, in which a popularly elected prime minister is the chief executive and the president is a ceremonial head of state. But Musharraf, who was widely despised when he left office, accumulated powers to stay in charge.
At Monday’s hearing, Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry asked for a complete list of beneficiaries and summoned the chairman of the National Accountability Bureau, an anti-corruption body formed under Musharraf, to bring a record of the cases, said Supreme Court spokesman Shahid Hussain Kamayo.
The attorney general’s office also submitted a written statement saying the federal government would not defend the amnesty because it was granted under the previous regime. The move means individuals will have to defend themselves if the amnesty is declared illegal and their cases are brought to court.
Dr. Mubashir Hasan, a prominent politician and one of the petitioners against the National Reconciliation Ordinance, as the amnesty was formally known, said all involved in corruption cases should be fairly tried and jailed if convicted regardless of political affiliation. “It is time to begin an operation to clean up Pakistan,” he said. “The ruling class … should be swept away so that a new era can begin.”
Earlier this year, Zardari gave in to street protests and reinstated Chaudhry as chief justice after he was fired by Musharraf. Many analysts took Zardari’s reluctance to reinstate Chaudhry as a sign he feared the judge would try to undermine his rule.
Political uncertainty is deepening in Pakistan just as President Barack Obama’s administration is stepping up its effort to defeat the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan and on Pakistan’s northwestern border. To have much hope of success, the U.S needs a stable Pakistani government committed to fighting militants blamed for attacks in both countries.
Pakistan’s army has been carrying out a ground offensive against the Taliban in South Waziristan, a tribal region bordering Afghanistan where Al Qaeda has also proliferated. The operation has spurred a wave of retaliatory attacks throughout Pakistan, including in Peshawar, the capital of the northwest.
Monday’s bombing occurred outside a building housing lower level courts. Senior police official Shafiullah Khan said a suicide bomber tried to get inside the facility but blew himself up when stopped by a security guard and a police officer.
Thick black smoke billowed at the scene, while a car and a rickshaw were engulfed in flames, local TV footage showed.
A rescue volunteer escorted a wounded man away from the site. Dr. Jamil Ahmad at the city’s Lady Reading Hospital said two policemen were among the dead.
Security and government facilities are favorite targets of the militants. On Nov. 19, a suicide bomber killed 19 people outside a separate judicial complex in Peshawar.