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Dangerous distraction

by Hans Dembowski

Opinion

President Zardari left with Prime Minister Gilani, who has irritated military leaders

President Zardari left with Prime Minister Gilani, who has irritated military leaders

Pakistan’s Supreme Court has indicted Prime Minister Gilani for contempt of court because he refused to ask Swiss authorities to investigate corruption charges against President Zardari. If the Court thinks Zardari is unfit for office, it must not transfer this important matter to a foreign country. By Hans Dembowski

Pakistan is in crisis, threatened by Islamist militants. Its state institutions are weak, the economy stuttering and corruption rumours abound. The military has a long history of coups; it last ran the country from 1999 to 2007. The secret service ISI originally fostered the Taliban, and Islamabad officially severed those ties only after Osama bin Laden orchestrated attacks on New York and Washington from Afghanistan on 11 September 2001.

Today, Asif Ali Zardari is Pakistan’s president. He should not be. He has an impressive track record of legal problems, mostly because of corruption. He was convicted of money laundering in Switzerland. Zardari was only free to enter politics once more thanks to an amnesty that pardoned all Pakistani politicians and their families in 2007.

This amnesty was based on a deal that Zardari’s wife Benazir Bhutto struck with the president at the time, Pervez Musharraf, a general who had toppled an elected government. The idew as to return to decmocracy. Benazir Bhutto was a former prime minister who hoped to lead the nation once more, and Musharraf was under double pressure to hold free elections:
– Mass protests had erupted after he had ­removed Iftikhar Chowdhry, the chief justice at the Supreme Court, from office.
– The US administration of President George Bush junior wanted a more legitimate person to lead Pakistan.

The transition to democracy did not go well. Benazir Bhutto was killed in December 2007. Her party subsequently won the elections, so her widower Zardari succeeded Musharraf as president in late 2008.

For a country struggling with corruption, a blanket amnesty is not healthy, and it was indeed ruled un-constitutional in 2009 by the Supreme Court under re-instated Chief Justice Chowdhry. The judges seem to be itching to punish corrupt leaders. Unfortunately, they have shied from tackling Zardari head on. Instead, they ordered Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to ask Swiss authorities to restart investigations against Zardari. Gilani refused to do so, arguing that the president enjoys immunity in Pakistan as well as abroad.

In February, the Supreme Court lost patience with Gilani. The judges indicted him for contempt of court. Found guilty, he would face a sentence of up to six months. He could not stay on as prime minister. Gilani is otherwise likely to become the first prime minister in Pakistan’s history to serve a full term. The proceedings against him mean that there is a risk of a severe constitutional crisis. The matter was adjourned before D+C/E+Z went to press.

In past months, Gilani expressed criticism of Pakistan’s powerful military, speaking of “conspiracies” against his civilian government and warning there must not be a “a state within the state”. The generals are furious because western media reported that the government had asked for US support to prevent a coup after US forces had killed bin Laden in Pakistan in May last year. They asked the Supreme Court to investigate possible leaks. The military resents Gilani’s relatively outspoken, though still understated rhetoric. It has obviously been a state within the state in Pakistan for a long time.

Some observers say the Supreme Court is doing the generals a favour by turning against Gilani. However, it has also begun to investigate matters that relate to violence committed under military rule, so others argue it is asserting itself as an independent branch of government.

Pakistan certainly needs judgements to end the culture of impunity which, so far, serves both military leaders and corrupt politicians. No self-respecting judiciary can close its eyes to such matters. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court’s action against Gilani is misguided. A self-respecting judiciary must try culprits under its own jurisdiction; it cannot transfer such a matter to foreign authorities.

If the judges think Zardari deserves to be in jail, they must charge him. To do so, they must either find a way to lift the president’s immunity or wait until his term in office ends. A country in crisis cannot ­afford the dangerous distraction of a judicially challenged prime minister when the real problem is the president.