Pakistan govt: Ministers who lost amnesty to stay

AP News
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Posted: Dec 19, 2009 12:20 PM

Pakistan's ruling party leaders insisted Saturday that they supported the president and would not oust other top government officials after the Supreme Court struck down an amnesty shielding them from corruption charges.

The party dismissed talk of any confrontation with the judiciary, but defiant moves by party leaders since Wednesday's sweeping _ and popularly hailed _ court ruling has so deepened the political turmoil in this nuclear-armed U.S. ally that some analysts gave the government only months to survive in its current form.

The escalating tensions threaten to distract Pakistan's leadership just as Washington is ramping up the pressure on Islamabad to widen its offensives against Islamist militants to include groups that threaten Western forces in neighboring Afghanistan.

The verdict means that thousands of corruption and other cases against politicians, bureaucrats and party workers dating back to the 1990s have, or will soon be, reopened. Many of the accused claim the charges against them are politically motivated.

During a critical meeting of the party leadership Saturday night, party officials told the media that they respected the courts and that accused members were prepared to face any charges.

But they also insisted that no Cabinet minister affected by the loss of the amnesty would be asked to quit _ even to burnish the party image _ and they said they had full confidence in President Asif Ali Zardari, who is constitutionally immune from prosecution in the graft cases against him.

"Mere accusations don't mean a person is proven guilty and on such a basis talk of resignations is not right," said Jahangir Badar, secretary-general of the Pakistan People's Party.

Aside from resisting calls for the ouster of Cabinet ministers, the government has in recent days suspended officials who were carrying out court orders and elevated one party member named in a graft case to law minister. The moves came as anti-corruption courts issued summonses to more than 100 suspects, while the Interior Ministry issued travel bans on some 250.

"It's not looking good for stability," said Cyril Almeida, an opinion writer for Dawn, a leading English-language newspaper. He ruled out a military coup _ something Pakistan is prone to _ but said the events have pitted "the political leadership that currently controls the executive against the judiciary."

Even Zardari's position is tenuous because his opponents say they'll now challenge his eligibility to be president in the first place. Zardari has resisted opposition calls that he resign on moral grounds and has long insisted on his innocence.

Among the suspects summoned by anti-corruption courts are Interior Minister Rehman Malik _ a figure seen as close to the U.S. _ and presidential secretary Salman Farooqi, court officials said. Malik and Defense Minister Ahmed Mukhtar were among the 250 barred from leaving the country following the Supreme Court's decision.

After immigration officials stopped Mukhtar from boarding a plane to China on Thursday, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani criticized the travel ban, suspended the secretary of the interior ministry and ordered an inquiry.

Part of the difficulty of eradicating official corruption in Pakistan is that investigative and prosecutorial bodies are rarely truly independent of the executive branch. Political analyst Rasul Bakhsh Rais noted that ruling party member Babar Awan was named law minister right around the same time that he was accused in a bribery case _ an accusation he has denied.

Rais gave the government "months" before it has to change, either through a shake-up of its leadership, mid-term elections or in some other fashion. That's not helpful for the Obama administration, which needs political stability in Pakistan to succeed in neighboring Afghanistan, where violence against U.S. and NATO troops is running at all time highs.

The amnesty was introduced as part of a U.S.-backed deal to allow Zardari's wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, to return from self-imposed exile in 2007. Bhutto was killed in December of that year, and Zardari took over the party afterward.

Many ordinary Pakistanis and civil rights activists have hailed the court ruling, saying the amnesty provided unfair cover to the privileged elite who control this impoverished country of 175 million. Analysts said the ruling party must be careful in how it deals with the judiciary, which is a far more popular branch of government.

The country's powerful army, meanwhile, has tense relations with Zardari, and is unlikely to back the civilian leadership. But it's also busy tackling insurgents on its soil _ even as the U.S. pressures it to do more _ and is unlikely to want to seize the reins of government, analysts said.

"Is a coup a clear and present danger right now? I think not. The army's got its hands full," Almeida said.