Court deals blow to Bhutto's power-sharing hopes

Pakistan’s Supreme Court threw a spanner into Benazir Bhutto’s plans for a smooth homecoming on Friday by declaring that the former prime minister could still face prosecution on long-standing corruption charges.

An amnesty signed into law by President Pervez Musharraf last week could yet be overturned at a hearing three weeks from now, said the Chief Justice, Muhammad Iftikhar Chaudhry. Any politician covered by the law, which spans 1986 to 1999, “would not be entitled to claim any protection” if it was later found to contravene the Constitution, he said.

The ruling is also a setback for Musharraf, who introduced the amnesty to underpin a possible alliance with Bhutto after general elections due by mid-January. Musharraf is already waiting for the Supreme Court to approve his re-election as president—he was returned with 98% of the votes on October 6—at a hearing due to resume on Wednesday.

Bhutto plans to fly to Karachi on Thursday, ending eight years of self-imposed exile.
“Obviously it’s a mousetrap situation for her,” said a senior lawyer, who declined to be named. “She steps back into the country but one month later faces the possibility of prosecution, which is what she’s been avoiding by staying away for the past eight years.”

Bhutto faces corruption accusations in Spain, Switzerland, Pakistan and the United Kingdom. Most are related to alleged kickbacks from her second term of office as prime minister between 1993 and 1996. She says the charges are politically motivated.

The Pakistan government is being quietly assisted by the United States and UK, which believe a power-sharing deal serves their strategic interests.

But legal experts say the amnesty is poor law and has a good chance of being struck down. “It flies in the face of several hundred judgements of the Pakistani courts,” said the senior lawyer. A senior figure in Bhutto’s People’s Party who was in court said he “had the impression the judges were not comfortable” with the ordinance. “Everything is a mess.”

Bhutto is already paying a price for her alliance with Musharraf. A survey by the International Republican Institute found that a majority of Pakistanis opposed the deal. Musharraf’s popularity plummeted to an all-time low of 21%, from 63% a year ago. Bhutto’s rating fell to 28%, while that of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif soared to 53%. The survey was conducted in September, shortly after Sharif was deported following a failed attempt to return from exile.

The editor of the Daily Times, Najam Sethi, predicted a collision between Musharraf, Bhutto and the Supreme Court. “I can’t image all three of them running this country without at least one falling victim, leaving the other two to slug it out,” he said.—Guardian Unlimited Â

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