PAKISTAN, January 25, 2012—The executive and the judiciary of Pakistan are in a war over a general amnesty for graft, the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) issued by the former dictator Pervez Musharraf. At stake is the survival of democracy in Pakistan.
Musharraf issued the ordinance on October 5, 2007, to remove the vestiges of political vendetta and victimization in politics. It paved the way for the return to Pakistan of the late Benazir Bhutto and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, from self-exile abroad. Bhutto, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) Chairperson, and her husband were targeted by a number of politically motivated cases against them in and outside Pakistan. Musharraf wanted to remove the politically motivated cases in order to pave the way for Bhutto and Zardari to take part in the elections.
These cases were in the courts for over a decade without any judgment being passed and hindered the couple’s ability to take part in the elections. The most important of these cases were the charges of Swiss money laundering.
The ordinance provided amnesty for crimes committed between January 1, 1986, and October 12, 1999. There are reported to be a number of intermediaries, including then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the current Pakistani Army Chief of Staff, General Ashfaq Pervez Kiani, then the chief of Inter Services Intelligence (ISI).
The ordinance caused more criticism than appreciation because it provided benefit to a particular class of people in violation of the constitution of Pakistan. It was challenged in the Supreme Court of Pakistan in 2009. It was declared unconstitutional by the Court on December 16, 2009, throwing the country in a political crisis. The Court directed the government to reopen all cases abolished under the NRO and to write a letter to the Swiss authorities, requesting that they restore graft cases against Bhutto and Zardari.
The court since then has insisted that the government implement its NRO ruling, but the government, which was formed by Bhutto’s party after it secured a majority in the February 2008 general elections, has remained non-compliant. Asif Ali Zardari, after being allowed by the NRO to participate in elections, won the September 2008 presidential election and duly became President of Pakistan.
On January 16, 2012, the Supreme Court stopped just short of declaring the Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani unfit for his office, and instead declared him in contempt of court for failing to act on its NRO ruling. He is to appear personally before the court to defend himself from the charges against him.
Gilani will be the second prime minister forced to defend himself from contempt charges. In 1997, a similar “show cause” notice was issued against then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, for making a speech against the judiciary in the Parliament. This time, the prime minister has to appear before the court for his refusal to write a letter to Swiss authorities to reopen cases against Zardari.
Now the prime minister, who is the head of the legislative branch, is at war with the judiciary in its highest form, the Supreme Court. In this clash of institutions, everyone is focused on the two combatants. This warfare is a mistake and a threat to democracy, because Pakistan’s third and most powerful institution may decide to end it. It has a history of doing so. That institution is, of course, the Army of Pakistan.
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