Pak relents on graft cases

nasir jaffry

Islamabad, Sept. 18: Pakistan's government on Monday surrendered to the country's powerful Supreme Cort after it agreed to write a letter to the Swiss authorities over corruption allegations against President Asif Ali Zardari.

Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf, who appeared before a fivejudge panel headed by Justice Asif Saeed Khosa said that he has directed his law minister to write to the Swiss authorities to withdraw an earlier letter by then attorney general Malik Qayyum, which asked them to stop money laundering probes against Zardari, who is also cochairman of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) .

"I have directed the law minister to write to Swiss authorities for withdrawal of Malik Qayyum's letter" that he wrote late in 2007, Ashraf told the court as it resumed hearing in a contempt of court cases against him over his failure to write a letter to Switzerland.

The court had given three weeks time to Ashraf on August 27 asking him to come up with a reply on what his government planned to do to deal with the situation.

The apex court repeatedly said it wanted nothing but implementation of one of its earlier judgements that scrapped the controversial National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) , promulgated by military ruler Pervez Musharraf in 2007 to grant amnesty to politicians especially from the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) as part of a power sharing deal with it.

Judge Khosa told Ashraf on Monday that the law ministry will draft a letter to Swiss authorities after necessary authorisation by the Prime Minister, adding that it will be put up to the court for amendments, if any before it is delivered to attorney general of Geneva.

"The government will keep us informed about delivery to and receipt of the communication by Swiss authorities," he added.

"This chapter should close as soon as possible," he said, appreciating efforts by the Prime Minister, who requested the court to look into the federation's concerns as the issue also involves the president.

The judge described Malik Qayyum's letter as illegal and unauthorised and said," The Prime Minister, who appeared in person informed us that he has already issued necessary direction to the law minister to implement relevant direction in paragraph 178 of rthe court's judgement on NRO.

The paragraph 178 of the order asked the government to contact Switzerland government and seek revival of cases of money laundering, which were ordered to be closed by Qayyum. These cases were registered against former premier Bhutto and her spouse Asif Ali Zardari.

The court also accepted Premier Ashraf's plea and extempted him from personal appearance on the next date of hearing on Septembet 25.

"The Prime Minister and his law minister have undertaken before us that by September 25, the necessary authorisation shall be placed before the court and draft communication will also be made availableenabling us to examine whether the same meet requirements of paragraph 178.

Analysts believe that withdrawal of Qayyum's request for closure of cases against Zardari would mean reopening of all cases but it does not mean cases will instantly reopen because relevant international conventions provides immunity to a sitting president from prosecution.

The court had disqualified Pervez Ashraf's predecessor Yousuf Raza Gilani in June for refusing to write a letter to Swiss authorities on the grounds that Zardari enjoys immunity from being prosecuted in any court of law as long as he hold office of the President.

Th Supreme Court had in early August struck down the Contempt of Court Act 2012, declaring it "ultra vires of the constitution". The new act had been passed by the two houses of the parliament in July in a bid to save Ashraf from facing disqualification over his government's refusal to write to the Swiss authorities.

Known as "Mr. Ten percent" for his involvement in corruption cases, Zardari was among over 8,000 politicians, government officials and bureaucrats who got amnesty from graft charges under NRO.

The apex court had ordered reopening of all cases of corruption under its December 2009 judgement that struck down the NRO which also benefitted among others several influential politicians inclu ding Zardari's close confidante and interior minister chief Rehman Malik and Mutahida Qaumi Movement Chief Altaf Hussain, who has been living in a self exile in London for the last 20 years.

Bhutto and Zardari allegedly used Swiss bank accounts to launder about 12 million dollars in bribes paid by different companies seeking contracts for customs inspection in Pakistan in the 1990s.

Pakistan's Prime Minister told the Supreme Court today that the government would comply with a longstanding directive to reopen an old corruption case against the president, defusing a conflict that has roiled the country's political system and led to the ouster of the last Premier.

President Asif Ali Zardari is likely in little immediate danger from the case in Switzerland, where he is recognised as enjoying immunity from prosecution as a foreign head of state.

But the decision came as somewhat of a surprise to many in Pakistan, given the government had refused for months to follow the court's order to write a letter to Swiss authorities asking them to reopen the case.

Both sides have come under public criticism for their focus on the case, rather than dealing with what are perceived as more serious problems facing the country, such as the weak economy, pervasive electricity shortages and a bloody Taliban insurgency.

Pakistani law minister Farooq Naek recently travelled to Switzerland to talk to officials about the case, and analysts said the government may have decided the risk of the Swiss reopening the proceedings was low enough to write a carefully worded letter.

"My view is that the government would never write a letter if they had not foreclosed any risk from doing so," said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a political science professor at Lahore University of Management Sciences. "They seem to be certain that nothing will happen to the President, and even if there is a slight chance the case is reopened, they will be able to invoke presidential immunity."

Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf said he finally ordered the law minister to write to the Swiss "in the larger interest of the country, in the larger interest of the people of Pakistan and in the larger interest of the integrity of Pakistan".

"I don't want to be seen standing on the wrong side of the history," Ashraf said, appearing before the judges.

Rais, the political science professor, said both the government and the court seemed exhausted by the conflict over the case and were seeking a way to move forward.

"The case is irrelevant compared to the enormous problems of law and order, energy, governance and the effectiveness of the judiciary in other cases," said Rais.