The Pakistan Supreme Court decided on Thursday that a full court would take up the petitions challenging the National Reconciliation Ordinance on Monday, a sign of the seriousness of the possible consequences for President Asif Ali Zardari.
The full court comprises 17 judges — minus one the full strength of the Supreme Court as one judge is facing disciplinary charges and has been excluded — and is the largest ever in Pakistan’s judicial history.
The court will decide at the first hearing whether to take up the case on a daily basis.
The NRO, as it is known, was decreed by the former President, Pervez Musharraf, in October 2007. It granted amnesty from corruption charges and was part of a deal between the military ruler and the later Pakistan People’s Party leader Benazir Bhutto to enable her return to the country.
Mr. Zardari, her husband, also benefited from the NRO. The closure of several cases against him was instrumental in clearing his path to the presidency.
But the NRO proved to be controversial and divisive from the beginning as it was held to have legitimised the large-scale corruption of which Benazir and Mr. Zardari were accused during their two terms in power.
Petitions challenging the NRO as discriminatory, and hence, unconstitutional, were filed in the Supreme Court within a few days of its promulgation in 2007. The court ordered a stay. But around that time, General (retiredd) Musharraf imposed emergency, dismissed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary and several other judges and reconstituted the court with a judiciary of his own choice.
The new Supreme Court vacated the stay and did not list the petitions for further hearing. Of five petitioners, three, including the cricketer-turned-politician, Imran Khan withdrew their petitions, but two remained.
When Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary was restored in March this year, it was expected that sooner or later, he would turn his attention to these two petitions.
But before doing that, Mr. Chaudhary first instructed the government to place 37 Musharraf-era ordinances, including the NRO, in the National Assembly, giving Parliament the first shot at deciding its fate.
As a defeat in the National Assembly became obvious, the government decided not to put it to vote, and allowed it to expire on the Supreme Court-ordered deadline of November 28.
Without the legal cover of the ordinance, Mr. Zardari is already under pressure from his political opponents to resign and face the corruption charges. While in office, he has immunity from prosecution.
According to legal experts, that pressure could increase manifold and Mr. Zardari’s position may even become untenable if the Supreme Court rules against the NRO, striking it down as unconstitutional.