Pakistan courts set for showdown with govt

December 21, 2009 12:00 am

, ISLAMABAD, Dec 21 – Pakistani prosecutors were reviving graft cases on Monday against Interior Minister Rehman Malik and hundreds of officials, setting the stage for a showdown with a shaky government.

President Asif Ali Zardari, four cabinet ministers and 8,000 bureaucrats, politicians, businessmen and others may face legal action after the Supreme Court annulled a two-year amnesty protecting them from charges.

The move has sparked calls for Zardari to resign, rocking the US-backed civilian government at a time of rising extremist attacks and mounting pressure from Washington to crack down on Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

The ruling party is determined to ride out what could be the worst challenge to Zardari\\\’s troubled 15 months in power, pledging to fight any charges brought against its leaders and making it clear there will no resignations.

"The allegations are false. I\\\’m not worried at all. We think that it\\\’s good that we\\\’ll go through that process and clear our names," Malik told CNN in the latest in a series of interviews pledging his innocence.

But the net closed in Monday as he received a second court summons, to appear January 2 over revived corruption charges.

"Mr Malik will appear in court. We are not afraid of appearing in the courts," his defence lawyer Amjad Iqbal told reporters in the garrison city Rawalpindi, where Taliban militants have staged increasingly brazen attacks.

Prosecutors confirmed they were bringing hundreds of cases to court.

"We reopened all the cases after the Supreme Court judgment and hearings in a number of cases all over Pakistan are going on," said Salar Ghazni Khan, spokesman for the National Accountability Bureau (NAB).

"Around 20 anti-corruption courts are working… There are hundreds of cases pending and following the Supreme Court verdict we expect the number of these courts to increase substantially," said one bureau official.

The end of the 2007 National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) was feted by a public disappointed by corruption and government performance as Pakistan grapples with recession, social ills and extremist attacks.

The Pakistan People\\\’s Party (PPP) won elections in 2008, marking a long-awaited return to civilian rule, but Zardari\\\’s relations with the powerful military are strained and his public approval ratings at rock-bottom.

It is possible lawyers could now challenge his immunity in the Supreme Court and petition judges to declare him no longer eligible for office.

Travel restrictions have been slapped on up to 253 individuals and Defence Minister Ahmed Mukhtar was banned from leaving on an official trip to China.

Critics say the revived graft cases are politically motivated and involve allegations relatively insignificant in a country ranked 40th most corrupt in the world by watchdog Transparency International.

Zardari, so tainted by corruption that he is nicknamed "Mr Ten Percent", spent 11 years in jail on charges ranging from corruption to murder.

The defence minister has spent time in prison and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani spent five years in jail under former military ruler Pervez Musharraf on charges of misusing authority.

The Supreme Court has ordered a monitoring body to oversee anti-corruption trials, granting itself the power to ensure action is taken and exacerbating pressure on the government.

"We don\\\’t believe in confrontation… Party policy is to defend the cases in the courts," PPP spokeswoman Fauzia Wahab told Geo television.

Governments in Pakistan have fallen as a result of military intervention over accusations of graft. Unlike Zardari, cabinet ministers have no immunity and if convicted would not be eligible to hold office.

"A tussle has already started between the government and the judiciary," senior lawyer Salman Raja told AFP.

Most analysts believe the government may be forced into a cabinet reshuffle and that while the end of the amnesty cannot unseat Zardari, the ensuing fracas may set the ball rolling towards his dismissal.

"The ultimate exit of President Zardari depends on political pressure. If the pressure is huge, he may quit but not on the basis of the court verdict," senior lawyer Abid Husain Minto told AF


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