by Tom Hussain, Foreign Correspondent
- Last Updated: August 18. 2009 12:28AM UAE / August 17. 2009 8:28PM GMT
The president of Pakistan , Asif Ali Zardari. Chris Hondros / Getty Images
ISLAMABAD // A controversial law that protects prominent Pakistani politicians from prosecution is only weeks away from being scrapped, exposing Asif Ali Zardari, the country’s president, to embarrassing questions over an illegal Swiss bank account.
The law, the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), was enacted in October 2007 by Pervez Musharraf, the then president, as part of a political agreement with Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister and chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party.
Brokered by Mark Lyall-Grant, the British ambassador, the NRO was the cornerstone of a political agreement designed to protect Mr Musharraf, a key ally of the West after the September 11 attacks, during a transition from military rule to democratic governance.
The deal allowed Bhutto, who was assassinated in December 2007, and Mr Zardari, her husband, to return from exile unhindered by outstanding charges of corruption, in anticipation of victory in forthcoming elections.
Mr Musharraf had justified the law by arguing that none of the allegations against Ms Bhutto and Mr Zardari had been proven, despite 10 years of investigations.
However, charges related to a $US70 million (Dh257m) Swiss bank account, which Pakistani authorities had contended contained illicit earnings, had come uncomfortably close to sticking.
A subsequent Swiss investigation seemed to corroborate the allegations against the couple and a Swiss court, hearing the charges instigated by the Pakistani government, had been close to delivering its verdict when, after the promulgation of the NRO, lawyers representing the Musharraf administration withdrew the charges.
Mr Zardari was last year elected president and, as head of state, enjoys constitutional immunity to prosecution while he remains in office.
Nonetheless, corruption charges dating back to Ms Bhutto’s second term as prime minister, between 1993 and 1996, have continued to dog him.
The president’s reluctance to reinstate Iftikhar Chaudhry, the chief justice, and other judges sacked by Mr Musharraf, was attributed by the opposition Muslim League party to fears that, if reinstated, they would strike down the NRO as being unconstitutional.
The league, led by Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister whose government Mr Musharraf had overthrown in an October 1999 military coup, split from the PPP-led coalition last year over the judges issue, and in March had thrown its weight behind street protests that led to the judges’ reinstatement anyway. The 14 judges of the Supreme Court are now within days of taking up a private petition challenging the constitutionality of the NRO, after a two-member bench of the court last week declined to rule.
However, Mr Chaudhry and his reinstated colleagues have moved cautiously since returning to the courts, most notably in a July 31 ruling against the constitutionality of actions taken by Mr Musharraf during the state of emergency he had imposed in late 2007.
The judges could have issued a recommendation to the government to prosecute Mr Musharraf on high treason charges that carry the death penalty, but did not; similarly, they decided against issuing a sweeping order nullifying controversial laws he had enacted, including the NRO, instead granting a four-month extension to facilitate further court hearings.
The government, in cognisance of the controversy surrounding the law, had never presented it to parliament for approval and, anticipating an unfavourable ruling, has already decided against renewing the law through presidential promulgation.
Nor has it sought to become a party to the petition challenging the NRO, with Abdul-Latif Khosa, the attorney general, saying that the government considered it “a closed chapter” that no longer warranted a legal challenge.
The outcome of their deliberations promise to be embarrassing for the president, however delicately the Supreme Court handles the case, and any ruling will inevitably raise questions about the propriety of Mr Zardari continuing as president.
Ominously, Pakistan ’s independent media has begun to ask Mr Zardari to explain the Swiss bank account, sparking accusations from government spokesmen of a witch-hunt.
Mr Zardari will enjoy constitutional immunity from prosecution for the remaining four years of his five in office, but the lingering corruption charges could easily be used as political leverage, especially in the event of a confrontation with Mr Sharif over constitutional reforms.