By JANE PERLEZ and SALMAN MASOOD
Published: December 18, 2009
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A sweeping Supreme Court decision that reopened corruption cases against thousands of politicians, including President Asif Ali Zardari, reverberated through the government on Friday as important ministers were barred from leaving the country and ordered to appear before the courts in the coming weeks.
Among those immediately affected were the interior minister, Rehman Malik, who is considered particularly close to the United States, and the defense minister, Ahmad Mukhtar, raising concerns about how effectively the Zardari government, under pressure from a violent Islamic insurgency, could continue to function.
The two men were among 247 officials, also including Salman Faruqui, the chief of staff to Mr. Zardari, placed on what is known as an exit control list. It bars them from leaving Pakistan, a measure Pakistani authorities often use to ensure that those under criminal investigation do not abscond.
At least 52 politicians were called to appear before corruption courts, according to the National Accountability Bureau, the anticorruption unit that was ordered by the Supreme Court on Wednesday to act expeditiously in reopening the cases.
By the end of the day on Friday, Mr. Faruqui had won an interim bail order from the Sindh High Court, a measure that would prevent him from being arrested, legal experts said.
Mr. Malik had also been ordered to appear before the Sindh High Court, according to Pakistan’s Express News television channel. Attempts to reach a spokesman for Mr. Malik were unsuccessful.
President Zardari has immunity from prosecution under the Constitution. He remained defiant on Friday against calls from the main opposition party that he step down.
Moreover, he has no intention of asking cabinet ministers or colleagues facing corruption charges to quit, a media adviser, Farahnaz Ispahani, said Friday.
“The president is fighting fit,” Ms. Ispahani said. “The president was clear that our Pakistan Peoples Party ministers would not be asked to resign merely on the basis of accusation.”
A cabinet reshuffle in which “some people will be out and some will be moved” will be the main response to the revocation of the amnesty by the Supreme Court, Ms. Ispahani said.
But as Mr. Zardari and his party, the Pakistan Peoples Party, the biggest in Pakistan, battled to survive, a groundswell of media and public opinion seemed to exult in the Supreme Court decision.
“We’ve never seen the mighty in this country held accountable,” said Babar Sattar, a Harvard-trained constitutional lawyer.
Now that the court, backed by public opinion, has come down hard on corruption in a way not seen before in Pakistan, the affected politicians are not sure how to react, Mr. Sattar said.
The confused response was evident when Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani dismissed the interior secretary, Qamar-uz Zaman Chaudhry, and three officials of the Federal Investigation Agency on Friday evening for barring Mr. Mukhtar, the defense minister, from traveling abroad on Thursday.
The incident was an embarrassment to the governing Pakistan Peoples Party and the defense minister, who was leaving for China on an official visit and called the move “shameful.”
A statement released by the prime minister’s office stated that the officials had not verified whether the minister’s name was on the exit control list and that their actions had “brought a bad name to the country.”
There was no sign on Friday that the army, which has been increasingly at odds with Mr. Zardari, was aiming to take control. But it has grown more wary of Mr. Zardari as an aura of corruption has continued to mount around his government.
The reputation of the army, stained after the president and military chief at the time, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, imposed emergency rule in November 2007, has grown in the past few months as it has fought Taliban militants, and it will benefit further because of the severity of the Supreme Court decision against the civilian government, analysts said.
Many of the corruption cases that the Supreme Court said must be reopened originate from the 1990s, including cases against Mr. Zardari, who served 11 years in prison. Mr. Zardari contends he was never convicted of corruption, a signal that he and his supporters say shows his innocence.
Lawyers affiliated with the opposition party the Pakistan Muslim League and some legal experts dispute Mr. Zardari’s assertion, citing a conviction in Switzerland that Mr. Zardari appealed. That case was withdrawn by the Pakistani government in 2007 under the provisions of the amnesty against corruption cases imposed by General Musharraf, who later resigned his military post.
In its ruling on Wednesday, the Supreme Court said the Musharraf government had acted improperly in withdrawing the case in Switzerland. It asked the Swiss authorities to resume the proceedings. Swiss officials backed away from the Supreme Court’s demand, saying Thursday that the case would not be reopened unless Pakistan started proceedings against Mr. Zardari.
In tackling the issue of corruption, the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who likes to see himself as the “people’s judge,” has gone beyond rolling back the amnesty on individual corruption cases.
This week, the court also took exception to the government’s removing the chief of the country’s main investigative agency.
In a ruling separate from the lifting of the amnesty, the court ordered the government to reinstate the head of the Federal Investigation Agency, Tariq Khosa, who had been dismissed by Prime Minister Gilani.
Mr. Khosa, who was described in the Pakistani press as the country’s toughest corruption fighter, was removed from his job earlier this month in the midst of an investigation.
Did you like what you read here? If so, please be kind enough to donate to support the cause (click HERE). It takes time and money to create a website like this and I love doing it so anything would be very much appreciated. And I’ll personally email you a free thank-you gift in return – my 214 page ebook about debt, credit, bankruptcy, investing and much more!