Pakistan Court Takes On its President

Islamabad, Pakistan – The seemingly interminable friction between Pakistan’s president and the country’s judiciary is about to get interesting.

After declaring unconstitutional in December a decree of sweeping amnesty, Pakistan’s Supreme Court moves today to re-open a series of corruption cases against prominent members of the government, including President Asif Ali Zardari himself.

With the government in its sights, the energized court might prove to be the strongest test yet for Zardari, who assumed the office in 2008. Some political analysts, in fact, said the proceedings could be the president’s eventual undoing, setting off a political crisis in a country already beset by all manner of calamities, including devastating floods, frequent terrorist attacks and a morale-crushing cricket scandal.

“If the Supreme Court disqualifies President Zardari there will be a major crisis in Pakistan,” said Hasan-Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based political analyst.

The amnesty law was first passed in 2007 by the government of then-President Pervez Musharraf. The National Reconciliation Ordinance, or NRO as the decree is known, attempted to eliminate past political vendettas and was applied to more than 8,000 bureaucrats and politicians. Zardari, himself, has long been dogged by accusations of money laundering among others, which he has cast aside as politically motivated.

In another sign of the judiciary’s growing confidence, the Lahore High Court reinstated a corruption conviction against Rehman Malik, Pakistan’s interior minister. Malik, however, escaped proceedings after being pardoned by the president in May.

The Supreme Court’s actions are motivated in part by Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry’s relentless quest to fight government corruption, said Ahmer Bilal Soofi, an advocate to the Supreme Court.

“By temperament and by judicial inclination he’s very keen to bring back public revenue,” Soofi said.

But there might be other motivations at play. The new government first appeared ready to reinstate Chaudhry, who had been suspended by Musharraf, but later changed its mind and only relented after intense popular pressure.

“The Supreme Court wants to embarrass this government and especially President Zardari, so there seems to be a political motivation,” Rizvi said.

The country’s powerful military, which has expressed frustration with the current civilian government, has also been pushing for the government to drop corruption-tainted officials.

But the government has sought every route possible to stall the proceedings in an effort to preserve Zardari and others from prosecution. In late September, the court agreed to postpone a hearing in the case for two weeks because the government was still busy dealing with the aftermath of the floods that devastated the country this summer.

Then the government argued it had to delay the case one more time because its lawyer had been promoted to a new position. On Monday, the Supreme Court rejected the argument and chastised the government for its stalling tactics.

“Obviously it’s a very dissatisfied Supreme Court at this point,” Soofi said.

The government’s legal strategy has also done little to improve a public image already battered by perceptions of a bloated cabinet whose poor performance in handling flood relief operations has been harshly criticized.

“As long as the letters ‘NRO’ stay in the headlines, the government’s reputation will continue to take a knock,” the English-language daily Dawn wrote in a recent editorial. “Rightly or wrongly, this particular government’s perceived reputation for corruption drags down the government’s chances of completing a full term in office.”

The president’s political opposition has also added pressure on the government by challenging the appointment of a party faithful as chairman of the National Accountability Bureau, an agency that is supposed to play a central — and independent — role in the implementation of corruption cases.

Despite all the setbacks, Zardari has remained defiant, vowing to complete his five-year term. “We are not afraid of jail or mosquitoes,” Zardari told reporters Monday.

While the outcome of the battle between the government and the Supreme Court, which will likely be a protracted one, is difficult to predict, many say it could lead to the end of Zardari’s presidency.

“I would not rule it out,” Soofi said.