In a major setback to the US-client government of President Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan's Supreme Court has declared the controversial National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) as unconstitutional and ordered the government to reopen money laundering case against him in Switzerland.
It may be recalled that in August 2003, a Swiss Court found former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and her widower, Asif Zardari, guilty of money laundering. Investigation Judge Daniel Devaud sentenced them to a six-month suspended jail term, fined them $50,000 each and ordered they pay more than $2m to the Pakistani Government along with a diamond necklace. The case was related to an illegal six per cent of commission or bribe worth $12 million for awarding a pre-shipment customs inspection contract to two Swiss firms Societe Generale de Surveillance and Cotecna. The judge said they had illegally deposited millions of dollars in accounts in Switzerland and ordered the money be returned to Pakistan.
The Swiss case was withdrawn by the incumbent government under the NRO issued by the former dictator General Parwez Musharraf in October 2007 as part of a deal negotiated by the former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to share power with the blessings of Washington. Unfortunately, Benazir was assassinated in December 2007 but her Party emerged as the leading party in the February 2008 elections due to a sympathy vote.
In a landmark decision, the apex court unanimously decided that the NRO was unconstitutional. All old cases that had been dismissed under the controversial ordinance stand revived and can now be reopened as per the court orders. The court said that all orders that were passed and all acquittals under the NRO were illegal and never existed. The apex court also said that all convictions that were held prior to the enactment of the NRO stand revived as well.
Letters made to Swiss courts requesting the withdrawal of cases against Zardari were also declared unconstitutional. The Supreme Court asked the government to take action against the former attorney general for making these requests at the instructions of the Zardari government.
day before the SC judgment, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) filed a
fresh report on Swiss cases which revealed that frozen Swiss accounts contained
$60 million a sum that has been released. However, NAB Chairman Nawed Ahsan told
the court that he had no details of the $1.5 billion assets allegedly owned by
President Asif Ali Zardari outside Pakistan.
According to the NAB report, there are 12 companies holding Swiss accounts that contain $8.4 million. Zardari, Begum Nusrat Bhutto, Aamir Lodhi and Benazir Bhutto are among the owners of these companies. Also, Zardari and Benazir Bhutto hold seven Swiss accounts. While the president holds four full accounts, he is a partner in three. Lodhi and Zardari are partners in one account, Nasir Hussain and Nusrat Bhutto (mother of Benazir Bhutto) hold two accounts, and lawyer Jim Shilgamal holds two accounts.
The nightmare comes true. Supreme Court decision against the NRO was not unexpected. This was probably the only reason that President Zardari was reluctant to restore Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry who was deposed by General Musharraf because the Chief Justice had bluntly refused to condone General's illegal actions. Interestingly, Zardari along with all other political parties were supporting the mass movement to restore Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry since his sacking but when Zardari became president he was reluctant to restore him because he knew that the apex court under Chaudhry will not oblige him on constitutional issues. However, President Zardari was forced to restore him in March this year because of Chief Justice's mounting popular support.
On the other hand, under intensive public pressure the government released, on November 21, a list of more than 8,000 politicians and high government officials who benefited from the NRO. President Zardari is listed as one of the beneficiary. The list includes three Federal government ministers: Interior Minister Rehman Malik, Defence Minister Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar, and Minister for Ports and Shipping, Babar Ghouri. Sindh Province Governor Ishratul Ibad, and two Sindh provincial ministers Shoaib Bukhari and Agha Siraj Durrani are also included.
Other prominent politicians who find their name in the official list are: Senator Jehangir Badar, the ruling PPP secretary-general and National Assembly members: Chaudhry Shaukat Ali and Aftab Sherpao.
The government officials of the incumbent government listed are: Salman Farooqi, secretary-general to the president, Pakistan's Ambassador in Washington Hussain Haqqani and Wajid Shamsul Hasan, High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.
Since the issuance of the NRO beneficiaries' list there were demands that all the government ministers and high officials named in the list should resign and face charges in the court. The Supreme Court judgment has opened way for trial of these politicians and officials in the court. President Zardari is protected under article 248 against any criminal proceedings in a Pakistani court but constitutional lawyers say that his immunity under this article does not apply outside Pakistan and the money laundering case against him can be reopened in the Swiss court.
The apex court verdict has further weakened already shaky and unpopular government of President Zardari which is also accused of fresh corruption scandals such as misappropriation of million of dollars through questionable deals by the Pakistan Steel Mill Chairman. Pakistan is ranked the 40th most corrupt country out of 180 monitored by Transparency International, the global watchdog, and many governments have fallen or been ousted by the military over accusations of graft.
Interestingly, the Supreme Court judgment came when the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff of USA, Admiral Michael G. Mullen was visiting Islamabad. He described it as an internal issue of Pakistan.