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Pakistani Court Throws Out Amnesty For Zardari

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) -- Pakistan's highest court on December 16 struck down an amnesty that has protected President Asif Ali Zardari and some aides from corruption charges, raising the prospect of political turmoil.

The decision rejecting the 2007 amnesty introduced by former president Pervez Musharraf will heap pressure on Zardari, who is seen as pro-American, even though he has presidential immunity.

The United States is keen to see Pakistan widen its battle against homegrown Taliban as part of its efforts to stabilize Afghanistan but political troubles could distract the government from the campaign.

The ruling meant that all old cases covered by the amnesty, most of them corruption cases, would be revived, chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry told the court.

Zardari's ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) respected the ruling but there was no question of the president resigning, said presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar.

"The PPP has faced challenges in the past and can face challenges in future. The PPP is not worried, its leadership is not worried," he told reporters outside the court.

Musharraf introduced the amnesty that protected about 8,000 people, including politicians and civil servants, as part of a power-sharing deal brokered with Zardari's late wife, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, with U.S. and British encouragement.

Bhutto returned to Pakistan from self-imposed exile soon after the amnesty was introduced but she was assassinated two months later while campaigning for a general election.

Instead, Zardari led her party to victory in the February 2008 polls and he became president after Musharraf stepped down later that year.

But his image has long been tarnished by allegedly shady deals during Bhutto's two terms as prime minister in the 1990s.

He says the charges were politically motivated. He was never been convicted but nevertheless spent 11 years in jail.

Zardari is now deeply unpopular and his government is perceived as weak in the face of a Taliban insurgency and a struggling economy.

Among those protected by the amnesty were the interior and defense ministers and several of Zardari's senior aides.

Election To Be Challenged?

While Zardari is safe from prosecution, some legal experts say the danger for him is that now that old cases against him have been revived, the legitimacy of his 2008 election as president could be challenged.

But some analysts said while the court's decision will increase political tension and distract the government from its battle against militants, it was not expected to spark chaos.

"Some people are going to be very upset, but does it mean the entire country is going to become unstable? I don't think so," said Shafqat Mahmood, a former government minister and analyst.

Zardari's allies were girding their loins for legal battles that could drag on for years, said another analyst.

"It'll be a protracted process. You could see the end of this government's term before anything happens with those cases," said Rashid Rehman, editor of the liberal "Daily Times."

Nevertheless, the United States will worry.

"If you look at it from their perspective, this is a total distraction and will weaken the whole [anti-militant] effort and weaken whatever progress has been made," Rehman said.

The controversy comes as the United States is pressing Pakistan to go after Afghan Taliban factions based in northwestern border areas such as one led by veteran militant commander Jalaluddin Haqqani.

U.S. Central Command chief General David Petraeus and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen are believed to have reiterated that call on visits this week.

A military official said Mullen and army chief General Ashfaq Kayani traveled on December 16 to the Swat valley, northwest of Islamabad, where Pakistani forces have largely cleared out militants with an offensive launched in April.

But analysts say the Pakistani military, while attacking Pakistani Taliban militants threatening the state, is reluctant to go after Afghan Taliban factions which give it leverage over old rival India as it expands its influence in Afghanistan.

A senior government official said Pakistan would decide who it attacked and when.

"We've told the Americans that the timeline for any operation and where to launch operations will be decided by us," said the official, who declined to be identified.

But Pakistan is worried the United States might expand its strikes by pilot less drones from ethnic Pashtun border lands in the northwest to the southwestern province of Baluchistan, where U.S. officials say Afghan Taliban leaders are hiding.