Pakistan's Political Uncertainty Deepens
By MATTHEW PENNINGTON | AP | October 12, 2007
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) — The Supreme Court on Friday refused to suspend a corruption amnesty for former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto but injected uncertainty into Pakistan's turbulent politics by saying the law was reversible, lawyers said.
Bhutto is set to return to Pakistan Oct. 18 from an eight-year exile to campaign for parliamentary elections in January. President Gen. Pervez Musharraf last week signed an ordinance quashing graft cases against the two-time prime minister and others.
That eased Bhutto's fears of arrest on her arrival. It was one of her key demands in months of talks on a possible power-sharing deal that could see the longtime rivals become allies fighting Islamic extremism in Pakistan after the January vote.
However, legal problems bedevil both sides and could yet obstruct both Bhutto's homecoming and Musharraf securing a new five-year term as president.
Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz on Thursday repeated a warning from Musharraf that Bhutto should delay her return until the Supreme Court rules on whether the military leader was eligible to contest the presidential election he swept last week.
Aziz said the government would not hinder Bhutto's return, but if the timing was wrong, it would be harmful for her, The Nation and Jang dailies reported, without giving further details.
That underscored the suspicion that lingers between the two sides.
Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup and later became a key U.S. ally, swept a presidential election by lawmakers last weekend, but faces at least a week or so of political limbo until the court decides whether he can take up office. If the court rules in his favor, he has promised to relinquish command of the army.
Speculation persists, however, that he may declare martial law if disqualified from a new term.
"The result of his election is now held in abeyance and he is fearful about the role Ms. Bhutto can play in the worst-case scenario," the Daily Times said in an editorial Friday. "It suits (Bhutto and her party) to be present on the ground ... if the Supreme Court rejects President Musharraf's re-election and there is emergency or martial law in the country in the aftermath of the verdict."
Still, most analysts expect the judges to rule in Musharraf's favor because of the political turmoil that would result if he was blocked. The court is due to resume hearings on the case on Oct. 17, the day before Bhutto's return.
Bhutto's own position could be tenuous if the court rules in favor of petitions filed by politicians from other opposition parties challenging the legality of the corruption amnesty.
The court on Friday rejected petitioners' calls for a stay in the implementation of the National Reconciliation Ordinance that quashes graft cases dating between 1986 and 1999 against Bhutto and other politicians and bureaucrats.
But the court noted that benefits arising from the ordinance could be reversed if the court eventually ruled it unconstitutional.
"If she (Bhutto) wants to come back, the cases will not come in her way. But if subsequently the Supreme Court rules otherwise, then the cases will be revived and the law will take its own course," Attorney General Malik Mohammed Qayyum told reporters outside the court.
The court adjourned the case for three weeks.
Sen. Babar Awan, Bhutto's lawyer, said she would return home Oct. 18 as planned. He said cases against Bhutto — originating from her two spells in power between 1988 and 1996 — had been withdrawn "the moment President Musharraf signed and issued" the ordinance.
Musharraf's designated successor as army chief, meanwhile, visited Pakistan's militant-troubled northwest and said there would be "no let up" in the country's war on terrorism.
Gen. Ashfaq Kayani is to replace Musharraf as army chief by Nov. 15, if the Supreme Court confirms Musharraf's election victory.
In his first publicized comments on the situation in the troubled Waziristan region, Kayani told commanders there to "spare no effort in eradicating the menace of terrorism," a military statement said.
Fierce fighting between troops and pro-Taliban militants in North Waziristan, a remote region next to the Afghan border, has killed some 250 people this week.
The bloodshed has revived accusations from Musharraf's opponents that he is killing fellow Pakistanis and destabilizing the country to placate Washington.
Friday's statement underlined expectations that Kayani, a close associate of Musharraf, would largely sustain Islamabad's close cooperation with the United States.
U.S. officials have welcomed the intensified military operations in the area near the Afghan border which they say offers a safe haven for al-Qaida leaders and a strategic base for Taliban militants fighting NATO troops in Afghanistan.
Associated Press writers Zarar Khan and Munir Ahmad contributed to this report.