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Court deals blow to Zardari

The Pakistani leader and others lose amnesty. The ruling complicates the anti-Taliban fight.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - The nation's Supreme Court yesterday nullified a deal that had given President Asif Ali Zardari and thousands of other government officials amnesty for past crimes.

The decision likely will further weaken Zardari's shaky hold on power and complicate U.S. efforts to get the Pakistani government to intensify its fight against Taliban extremists who use Pakistan's border regions as a base for cross-border attacks in Afghanistan.

So long as Zardari is president, he has immunity from prosecution, but the limits of that protection are expected to be tested in the courts.

The court decision comes as the United States pushes for an expanded strategic partnership with Pakistan to help combat the growing threat from Islamist extremists, including the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

The United States is sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan and wants Pakistan to step up efforts on its side of the border.

But elements of the military, which ran the country for half its history and remains more powerful than the civilian government, oppose a major offensive on behalf of the United States. They, and much of the Pakistani public, instead blame Washington for stirring up turmoil in their country.

Zardari's ability to govern has been compromised by his struggle to simply hold on to his job - a task made harder by yesterday's ruling.

Zardari, 54, regards all the cases against him, which date back to the 1990s, as politically motivated.

The court was ruling on a challenge to the 2007 amnesty, known as the National Reconciliation Ordinance.

It was granted to politicians and bureaucrats by then-President Pervez Musharraf in a deal brokered by the United States and Britain to enable exiled Pakistani leaders, including Zardari's wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, to return to the country without fear of prosecution and help it transition to civilian rule.

Soon after her return, Bhutto was assassinated. Her Pakistan Peoples Party then swept national elections last year, Musharraf stepped down, and Zardari became president.

The court ruled that the amnesty was illegal because it was discriminatory, favoring a small category of people.

The decision to overturn the amnesty deal had been expected, but the 17-member Supreme Court panel - led by Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, who had been removed by Musharraf and reluctantly restored by Zardari - went further. It requested that Swiss authorities reopen 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.

The court's ruling, issued late in the evening, 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, including Interior Minister Rehman Malik.

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."