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Corruption Ruling Poses Dilemma For Pakistani President, Government

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari

(RFE/RL) -- Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari is under pressure to resign following a Supreme Court ruling annulling an amnesty protecting him from corruption charges.

The country's main opposition party, the Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) today called on Zardari and his entire cabinet to step down, and to dissolve parliament.

Lawyers for the petitioners were jubilant when the news broke. They had argued that the amnesty, which in all covered some 8,000 people including several cabinet ministers, was unconstitutional. The court, presided over by chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, agreed.

One of the lawyers, Abdul Hafeez Pirzada, suggested the ruling would set in motion wide-ranging political changes.

"It is victory, victory of the people of Pakistan, particularly the poor and the downtrodden because this related to invasion of their wealth, the national wealth which was plundered by individuals in positions of power," Pirzada said.

"And we have now set an evolutionary process which will take us to national consolidation -- the real national consolidation -- and strength."

The 2007 amnesty decree was issued by former President Pervez Musharraf in a power-sharing deal with Zardari's late wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Bhutto was assassinated shortly afterwards.

Zardari is immune from prosecution while in office, but his eligibility as president could now be challenged, in that the constitution states that presidential candidates must be persons of probity.

Zardari previously spent years in jail on corruption charges, but he has always maintained that these and other graft charges against him are politically motivated.

However, the ruling leaves thousands of other officials, including key cabinet ministers loyal to Zardari, facing reopened corruption and other criminal cases.

Zardari spokesman Farhatullah Babar told reporters that the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) would respect the ruling and take it in its stride.

"PPP has faced challenges in the past and PPP can face challenges in the future," Babar said. "PPP cannot be intimidated, its leadership cannot be intimidated. We know the way, and we know how to deal [with this]."

Battling Taliban

The domestic political crisis comes as the Zardari government is already heavily preoccupied with efforts to gain the upper hand in areas along the border with Afghanistan which are largely controlled by Taliban militants.

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani announced on December 12 that the army has finished its operation against the Taliban in the South Waziristan tribal region.

But he said the government is discussing taking the battle to Orakzai tribal region. Orakzai has long been the main base of Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud and many militants from South Waziristan are believed to have moved there.

The border control issue has taken on extra gravity, because Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in Islamabad on December 16 that Al-Qaeda leaders and the Taliban leadership from Afghanistan are hiding in Pakistan.

compiled from agency reports