New Zardari Corruption Charges: Bad News for U.S.

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Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari addresses a meeting in Islamabad

There was more bad news for Washington out of Islamabad late Wednesday, Dec. 16, this time from Pakistan's Supreme Court. The court overruled an amnesty on corruption charges that had been granted to President Asif Ali Zardari and other senior figures, spurring efforts by political opponents to force America's top ally in Pakistan to step down. The move follows a week in which top U.S. military commanders struggled to persuade their Pakistani counterparts to go after Afghan Taliban groups based in Pakistan, while U.S. diplomats complained, through the media, of increasing harassment by Pakistani authorities, which was seen as a symptom of simmering resentment toward American involvement in Pakistan's affairs.

The full 17-member Supreme Court bench declared that the amnesty protecting Zardari from prosecution was illegal, reviving old corruption charges and raising the prospect that senior members of the government could be dragged into court. On Thursday evening, Dec. 17, the National Accountability Bureau, a government-corruption watchdog, began the process of issuing arrest warrants, freezing accounts and barring some of the accused from leaving the country, local media reported.

The highest-profile names that could be immediately affected by the amnesty's cancellation include Interior Minister Rehman Malik, Defense Minister Ahmed Mukhtar and top presidential aide Salman Farooqi. "These are the people most loyal to the President," said a Zardari aide. Prospects are increasingly uncertain for the survival of the already unpopular government. Leading legal experts argue that Zardari, who could face eight corruption cases in Pakistan, currently remains protected by presidential immunity. But his political opponents, building pressure on him to resign, now appear poised to mount fresh challenges to his eligibility as a candidate for the presidency in the 2008 election.

"Mr. Zardari has lost all moral grounds to continue ruling as head of state," says Marvi Memon of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Q, founded by former President Pervez Musharraf. "For the sake of his party's future and the people of Pakistan, he should do the right thing and step down immediately, failing which, he will go down in history in words he will never be able to recover from politically."

The President's office has come out fighting. "There is no question of President Zardari resigning," said presidential spokeswoman Farahnaz Ispahani. "The only constitutional way to remove [the President] is impeachment by both houses of Parliament with a two-thirds majority." Members of the ruling Pakistan People's Party say their leader is the object of a vicious media campaign intent on ousting him because of his pro-U.S. stance. Zardari spent more than 11 years behind bars under previous regimes on charges that he denies and maintains are politically motivated.

The presidential amnesty struck down by the court was issued by Musharraf in October 2007 as part of a power-sharing agreement brokered by Washington and London to pave the way for Zardari's slain wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, to return to Pakistan. After her assassination, Zardari returned from exile, led her party to victory in the elections and stepped into the office of President after Musharraf's resignation.

The legal setback for Zardari comes at a moment of low approval ratings and widespread allegations of fecklessness, along with mounting pressure on him to shed the executive powers claimed for the presidency by Musharraf and revert to its traditional, largely ceremonial role. Even within the government there is a slow, grinding power struggle between the President and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, who stands to benefit if Zardari recedes into the political background.

In contrast to Zardari, who is widely seen as being close to Washington — not a popular position in Pakistan — Gilani is viewed by analysts as being more vulnerable to pressures from the powerful army chiefs. The Prime Minister has also faced criticism from within his party for being too friendly with the political opposition. The potential shift in power away from Zardari is unlikely to help Washington's efforts to press Pakistan to join its war against the Afghan Taliban.

During the court hearing on the amnesty, the judges took particular interest in money-laundering charges brought against Zardari and Bhutto in Switzerland in 2006. Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, the independent and widely popular activist judge sacked by Musharraf and restored by Zardari under pressure from massive street demonstrations, summoned all relevant documents and demanded explanations as to why the cases had been closed by the Swiss authorities at the request of Pakistan's attorney general at the time. Those cases have now been reopened, but leading attorney Aitzaz Ahsan — who led the lawyers' movement that had Chaudhry reinstated — insists that Zardari enjoys "sovereign immunity" and cannot be tried in Switzerland.

If that immunity is lifted, Zardari is unlikely to go quietly. His aides stress that he will face any charges brought against him. But since assuming the presidency, Zardari has been repeatedly drawn into political fights in which he has been forced to retreat under pressure from the opposition, the media and the military establishment. Some observers believe he can brave the gathering storm if he moves quickly to relinquish the executive powers of the presidency and overhaul his much criticized Cabinet. But unless he makes those concessions, analysts say, Zardari could find himself locked in a bitter battle for political survival that will consume most of his attention and distract from the wider challenges facing Pakistan.