Pakistan’s president faced fresh calls to step down today after being stripped of an amnesty that protected him from corruption charges.
The court ruling yesterday weakened the already shaky rule of Asif Ali Zardari and sharpened political tensions just as the West wants it to unite and fight militants along the Afghan border.
Although it is generally agreed that Zardari has immunity from prosecution as president, the Supreme Court ruling means his opponents can now challenge his eligibility to hold the post.
Mr Zardari is already unpopular, largely because of his close ties with the US. The allegations of wrongdoing being heard in court will add to his troubles.
Mr Zardari’s aides said any corruption charges against him were politically motivated and that there was no reason for him to step down. Critics countered he was morally obligated to resign, at least while the court heard any challenges to his rule.
“It will be in his own interest, it will be in the interest of his party and it will be good for the system,” said Khawaja Asif, a senior leader from the opposition Pakistan Muslim League party.
The amnesty was part of a US-brokered deal with then-military ruler Pervez Musharraf that allowed former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to return home from self-exile and participate in politics without facing charges her party says were politically motivated.
Mr Zardari, Ms Bhutto’s husband, took control of the party after she was assassinated in 2007.
Known as the National Reconciliation Ordinance, it stopped corruption investigations and probes into other alleged misdeeds or wiped away convictions in cases involving up to 8,000 ministers, bureaucrats or politicians from across the spectrum.
Civil rights activists have criticised the amnesty as having unfairly protected the wealthy elite.
Mr Zardari has been haunted by corruption allegations dating back to governments led in the 1990s by his late wife. He spent several years in prison under previous administrations.
The Supreme court singled out an investigation that began in 2006 in a Swiss court into allegations of money laundering against Mr Zardari and his late wife.
Authorities there suspended the case last year after the attorney general under Mr Musharraf told them the government was no longer pursuing it. At the same time, Geneva unblocked $60m (€41.7m) that had been frozen in Swiss bank accounts on request of Pakistani authorities.
The court said this was illegal and ordered the government to ask Swiss authorities to reopen the case.
Pakistani papers today welcomed the Supreme court decision striking down the amnesty as a victory for justice. Many said it boded ill for Mr Zardari.
Some analysts said Mr Zardari may be able to take some of the sting out of his opponents’ attacks – and ultimately survive in office – if he gives up many of the powers he inherited from Mr Musharraf.
A few weeks ago, amid mounting pressure, Mr Zardari relinquished command of the country’s nuclear arsenal and said he would soon give up more powers.