On 16 December, when the highest court in Pakistan struck down the controversial National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), it was not just a blow in favour of accountability, but also a blow to the first civilian government to function after years of military rule. The controversial NRO that then-president Pervez Musharraf promulgated on 5 October 2007 after the US and the UK helped broker a ‘deal’ between him and the late Benazir Bhutto of the Pakistan People’s Party represented political convenience of the highest order. Under the NRO, all corruption and other criminal cases against some 8000 people, including Benazir Bhutto, her husband and current President Asif Ali Zardari and other politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen, were withdrawn to promote national reconciliation and pave the way for the return of exiled leaders. With the Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry declaring the NRO null and void, it meant that all cases against those who ‘benefited’ from the controversial NRO would be re-opened with retroactive effect. Ripples of insecurity spread fast among members of the current government, curbs on travel on the Interior Minister Rehman Malik and the Defence Minister Ahmed Mukhtar being the first visible outcomes of the order.
President Zardari’s 10 December op-ed in the New York Times, followed soon thereafter. His view that no prime minister or president should face “judicial murder” made clear deep apprehensions about the Supreme Court verdict. But Pakistani political culture is not characterised by public officials resigning over allegations of misuse of authority or charges of corruption. It did not therefore come as a surprise when Zardari’s spokesman Farhatullah Babar said, after the Supreme Court verdict, that there was no question of the President stepping down. Since 1988, four elected governments have been dismissed and accusations of corruption led the charge-sheet every time, with the PPP and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz group) each suffering twice when their governments were sent packing. Corruption in the country seems only to have increased; Pakistan, ranked 46 in Transparency International’s global ranking of corruption, has climbed five places since last year.
The judgment struck down the law for violating Article 62(f) of the Constitution, which requires a member of parliament to be “sagacious, righteous, non-profligate and honest”. It must be remembered that parliamentarians are being judged on the stringent standards set by the Zia regime. This particular constitutional provision has been considered a tool by which to keep members of parliament insecure. Though the Constitution gives immunity to the president against any case being initiated against him, legal experts are of the view that a reference can be filed with the Election Commission of Pakistan to question Zardari’s eligibility at the time he filed nomination papers for the presidential elections last year. It must be remembered that the SC verdict clearly declares the NRO as invalid with retroactive effect, rendering any of the protection the compromise offered null and void. To make things more uncomfortable for Zardari, the court has also ordered the government to inform Swiss authorities, should they wish to re-open the cases against him; Zardari and Benazir are said to have stashed away huge amounts of public money in personal Swiss bank accounts. If the president cannot be prosecuted for corruption in his own land, lay the ground for it on foreign shores, appears to be the thinking. However, this is a long and cumbersome process that can only be useful as a political whip.
In September 2008, less than a year after the assassination of his spouse Benazir Bhutto, Zardari, riding the sympathy wave, garnered a phenomenal two-thirds of the vote to the presidency, with strong backing from Washington, DC and London. Along with key constitutional powers and the support of national and regional political forces, he appeared to be in a strong position. His earlier moniker ‘Mr Ten percent’, given his penchant for kickbacks when Benazir was prime minister, were relegated to the background at that moment. However, within a month, an anti-Zardari storm grew apace, with public statements from the powerful military establishment expressing “serious concerns” about the Kerry Lugar Bill, the American legislation giving Pakistan USD 1.5 billion in annual non-military aid for the next five years. With Zardari backing the bill, it gave rise to a serious altercation between the president and the military GHQ, with growing anxiety about the increased control by Washington, DC over the internal affairs of Pakistan. Indeed, uneasy with the Zardari presidency from the very beginning, the military, floated the “minus-one formula” – a term used to oust Zardari – just six months after he was sworn in. The SC verdict comes at a time when Zardari is politically weak, the military implacably negative and the US distancing itself from him. Indeed, the president would do well to learn from trusting this demanding ally. Washington, DC agreed to “dump” its most trusted man Pervez Musharraf when he could not deliver on US security and strategic goals in the region.
It is up to Zardari to get the military to continue to stand behind the Parliament for political ownership of the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the tribal areas along the Afghanistan border. As the war against the militants rages, Pakistan needs the PPP to safeguard the federation. The party can survive these difficult moments if it takes some bold decisions such as asking party leaders accused of corruption to face cases in court and return to office in dignity and with ‘clean hands’. The country’s biggest political party with roots in all the four provinces, Pakistan-administered Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan will need to tighten its reins following the Supreme Court verdict, and seek to achieve the high moral ground in the public eye. However, if it adopts a confrontational path it may sink the country deeper into political chaos.
With this important verdict, pressure will also mount for the Supreme Court to take on other important cases such as the Bank of Punjab scam, the Haris Steel Mills case, and also bring defence deals under the judicial scanner in order to send a message that the judiciary is independent. The court will have to convince the populace that Chief Justice Chaudhry in particular is not merely on a witch hunt against any one party or individual. Among the pending matters before the Supreme Court are important ones relating to hundreds of cases of “enforced disappearance” involving the state agencies and another relating to allegations that the Inter-Services Intelligence distributed money among various political parties and groups to form an alliance to defeat the Pakistan People’s Party in general elections. If parliamentarians, who stand the test of public approval through the ballot are also made to conform to exacting moral standards, it stands to reason that the judiciary must also submit itself to public scrutiny in the interests of overall accountability. Pressing for accountability in political office is certainly laudable, but it is also up to Chief Justice Chaudhry to bring other significant cases of public interest out of cold storage and prove that he has not succumbed to pressure – primarily from the military – to “corner” Zardari. While witch hunts might whip up a temporary storm, they do not help in strengthening mechanisms and institutions of accountability.
|Journalism under threat|
|The rest of the media fraternity in Southasia does not fully realise how dangerous some parts of the region are for those who seek to uphold independent journalism. Sri Lanka, the Indian Northeast, Kashmir and Nepal beyond the Kathmandu Valley are areas where the threat to life and limb are very real. Himal was reminded of this when a member of our editorial board, Manisha Aryal, narrowly escaped the 9 June blast in the Pearl Continental in Peshawar, because she was in the other wing of the hotel. On 22 December, in the first-ever direct attack on journalists in Pakistan, a suicide bomber detonated a bomb that ripped into the Peshawar Press Club, where our Contributing Editor Iqbal Khattak is a regular. Khurram Pervez of The News, and staff of the Press Club were injured. Himal contributor Manzoor Ali Shah also happened to be in the building. We salute police constable Riaz Uddin who sacrificed his life trying to save the journalists inside, and wish all journalists in Peshawar a quick recovery from the trauma in a part of Southasia that is becoming more dangerous to journalists by the day.|