Pakistan's Supreme Court on Wednesday nullified a controversial deal that had given President Asif Ali Zardari and thousands of other government officials amnesty from past crimes, a decision likely to further weaken Zardari's already shaky hold on power.
Zardari still has immunity from prosecution under the constitution. But opponents plan to challenge that immunity by arguing that the president is technically ineligible for his office.
The decision comes as the United States pushes for an expanded strategic partnership with Pakistan to help combat the growing threat in the region from Islamic extremist groups, including the Taliban and al-Qaida. The United States is sending 30,000 additional troops to neighboring Afghanistan, and wants Pakistan to step up efforts on its side of the border to keep militants from finding refuge there.
The repeal of the amnesty comes amid a struggle in Pakistan between the civilian government, which is weak, and the military that has run the country for about half its history. Zardari's ability to govern has been compromised by his struggle to simply hold onto his job - a task likely to be made harder by Wednesday's ruling.
The decision to overturn the amnesty deal had been expected, but the 17-member Supreme Court panel went further, requesting that Swiss authorities open years-old corruption cases against Zardari that had been set aside.
Zardari allegedly received millions in illegal commissions from two Swiss companies, and was convicted in 2003 on money-laundering charges by a Swiss magistrate. The conviction was later suspended. Zardari has denied allegations of corruption, and has said the accusations are politically motivated. It was unclear whether the Pakistani court's ruling would have any bearing on the decisions of the Swiss courts.
The court's ruling, issued just after 10 p.m. following hours of deliberation, had the immediate effect of reopening cases against thousands of politicians and bureaucrats that had been frozen under the amnesty deal. Four government ministers had been protected under the amnesty. One, Interior Minister Rehman Malik, had been convicted and may now be forced to fight the charges on appeal.
The amnesty deal, known as the National Reconciliation Ordinance, was created in 2007 as an agreement between former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and then-President Pervez Musharraf. The deal allowed Bhutto and her husband, Zardari, to return to Pakistan without facing the threat of prosecution over long-standing corruption allegations.
Bhutto was assassinated months later, and Zardari succeeded her as leader of the Pakistan People's Party. After the PPP swept elections last year and Musharraf stepped down, Zardari became president.
In the hearings leading up to the court's decision, the government had not defended the unpopular amnesty deal.
Zardari spokesman Farhatullah Babar said the government would respect the court's decision, but he reiterated that the president remained immune from prosecution under the constitution. "We believe this does not affect the president of Pakistan," Babar said.
Others had different ideas. Roedad Khan, a retired civil servant who was one of the petitioners who challenged the amnesty, said the decision would "destroy" Zardari.
Khan called Zardari "a man who has looted and plundered this poor country. ... Is there one law for Zardari and one law for the 160 million people of Pakistan? No, there is one law for everyone. He can't get away with it."
Abdul Hafeez Pirzada, a veteran lawyer who argued that the deal should be nullified, called the decision "a victory for truth. It is a victory for the judicial system. It's a victory for the country."