- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 17, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | Pakistan’s top court struck down an amnesty Wednesday that had protected the president from corruption charges, paving the way for challenges to his shaky rule just as the U.S. wants Islamabad to step up its fight against Islamic militants.

The main opposition party immediately called on President Asif Ali Zardari to resign, adding to the political turmoil in this nuclear-armed nation at a time of surging violence by the Taliban and al Qaeda. The U.S.-backed president already is deeply unpopular and under pressure to give up much of his power.

The decision, which was widely expected, also leaves thousands of other officials - including Cabinet ministers and bureaucrats loyal to Mr. Zardari who had also been shielded by the amnesty - vulnerable to reopened corruption and other criminal cases.

“All the benefits given under the [amnesty] - cases withdrawn, acquittals made - are declared void,” Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry said in announcing the ruling of the 17-member bench.

Presidential aides said the government would issue a formal response after thoroughly reviewing the judgment. They pointed out that while he remains president, Mr. Zardari has immunity from prosecution.

The main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), said Mr. Zardari should step down, although it insisted that it was not agitating for midterm elections nearly two years after Mr. Zardari’s party won the majority in parliament.

“After the court ruling, Asif Ali Zardari should morally step down,” said Sadiqul Farooq, a PML-N spokesman.

Zardari aides scoffed at the notion.

“The president of Pakistan has no intention of stepping down from his office at this point or anytime in the future,” spokeswoman Farahnaz Ispahani said. “There is no constitutional or political reason for the president to resign.”

The amnesty was part of a U.S.-brokered deal with former military ruler Pervez Musharraf that paved the way for former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to return home from self-exile and take part in politics without facing cases her party says were politically motivated. Mr. Zardari, Mrs. Bhutto’s husband, took control of the party after she was assassinated in 2007.

The amnesty, known as the National Reconciliation Ordinance, had angered some civil rights activists and ordinary Pakistanis who said it protected the wealthy elite who govern the impoverished, corruption-plagued nation from being punished for their purported crimes.

Despite his immunity from prosecution, Mr. Zardari’s opponents are now expected to challenge his eligibility for the post, arguing that if it were not for the amnesty, he would not have been able to run for president.

Mr. Zardari has long been haunted by corruption allegations dating back to governments led by his wife. He spent several years in prison under previous administrations. He denies any wrongdoing.

The amnesty had been protecting Mr. Zardari from six graft cases dating to the late 1990s. One alleges that he misappropriated $1.5 billion.

The court singled out a money laundering case involving Mr. Zardari and his wife that had been heard in a Swiss court until the attorney general under Mr. Musharraf withdrew proceedings against them as a result of the amnesty. Justice Chaudhry said this was illegal and ordered the government to ask Swiss authorities to reopen the case.

Earlier this year, Mr. Zardari gave in to street protests and reinstated Justice Chaudhry as the chief justice after he was fired by Mr. Musharraf.

Ever since Mr. Zardari took over the presidency in September 2008, the opposition has demanded he give up sweeping 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 give up more powers soon.

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