Pakistan ruling party grapples with court decision
Islamabad: Pakistan's ruling party denied on Saturday that any Cabinet ministers would be forced to resign as a result of a Supreme Court decision that overturned a corruption amnesty protecting numerous politicians including the president.
The comments from Pakistan People's Party spokeswoman Farahnaz Ispahani come ahead of a critical meeting of the party's central leadership to review the sweeping ruling. President Asif Ali Zardari enjoys immunity from prosecution, but the voiding of the amnesty means many other political leaders face renewed corruption allegations, some dating to the 1990s.
It also deepens political turmoil in Pakistan just as Washington has increased pressure on Islamabad to do more to aid the war effort in neighbouring Afghanistan.
Asked if top Cabinet members affected by the ruling, such as Interior Minister Rehman Malik, would be asked to quit, Ispahani said it would be inappropriate because the cases against them had not been proven.
"You're not guilty until you're proven so," Ispahani said.
The government seemed bewildered by Wednesday's ruling, even though it had been expected.
Anti-corruption courts across the country issued summons on Friday to more than 100 suspects, including Malik and presidential secretary Salman Farooqi, said court officials.
The summons came a day after the Interior Ministry issued a list of nearly 250 officials, including Malik and Defense Minister Ahmed Mukhtar, who were barred from leaving the country following the Supreme Court's decision.
Immigration officials stopped Mukhtar from boarding a plane to China on Thursday, a decision criticized by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani. He suspended the secretary of the interior, Qamar Zaman, on Friday and ordered a formal inquiry.
"Stopping the defense minister from going on an official trip to a very friendly country brought a bad name to the country," Gilani told reporters.
State media reported that he also defended Zardari, saying the allegations against him were old and had never been proven.
Opposition leaders have demanded Zardari quit the presidency on moral grounds, but his aides had ruled that out.
Although the US-allied Zardari is protected by constitutional immunity from criminal prosecution, opponents say they plan to challenge his eligibility for office.
The Supreme Court ruling has been welcomed by many Pakistanis, who viewed the graft amnesty as an immoral piece of legislation that whitewashed the crimes of the elite.
It was introduced as part of a US-backed deal to allow Zardari's wife, the late Benazir Bhutto, to return from self-imposed exile in 2007 and contest elections safe in the knowledge she would not be prosecuted for old corruption accusations she insisted were politically motivated.
"They are stealing our resources, so if cases against them are reopened, it is good," said Islamabad resident Nasar Rehman as he shopped at a market in the capital.
Zardari, who heads the country's largest party, is already unpopular, in large part because of his close ties with Washington. He now faces the prospect of bruising court battles that will likely mean old corruption charges come under fresh scrutiny.
The turmoil comes at a difficult time for the Washington-Islamabad relations. The Obama administration needs political stability in Pakistan to succeed in neighbouring Afghanistan, where violence against US and NATO troops is running at all time highs.
The White House wants Pakistan to do more to eliminate insurgent safe havens on its territory along the Afghan border.