A day after the Supreme Court sought details of a case in a Swiss court against President Asif Ali Zardari that was closed under the National Reconciliation Ordinance, the Pakistan government, which had earlier declared it would not defend the controversial law, found its voice on Thursday to hint to the judges that they were politicising the case with the possibility of serious consequences for the country.
The federal government made this intervention through an application to the full court of 17 judges that is hearing petitions asking for the NRO to be struck down as ultra vires and “void from the beginning”.
The NRO was promulgated by the former President, Pervez Musharraf, in October 2007, and was aimed at erasing corruption charges against Benazir Bhutto in return for her decision that the Pakistan People’s Party would not oppose his 2007 election as President.
Mr. Zardari is the most high-profile beneficiary of the NRO, alongside more than 8,000 others.
The court has heard the petitions daily since Monday.
At Wednesday’s hearing, the full court appeared to be expanding the scope of the petitions before it as it picked out Mr. Zardari’s disproportionate assets case from the list of beneficiaries, demanding all details of how the case, which was in the Swiss courts, was terminated, and what had happened after that to the money that was frozen in Swiss bank accounts when the case was still underway.
The proceedings could not have been more damaging to Mr. Zardari’s already embattled presidency. The court clearly appeared to be putting him on an impromptu trial without actually doing so, even if his name was not mentioned a single time during the hearing.
With the government having decided not to defend the NRO on the very first day of the full court’s hearings, there was no one to defend the President, or the Pakistan People’s Party, which also suffered a battering as counsel for the petitioner argued that the NRO was nothing but a “deal” between the late Ms. Bhutto and General (retired) Musharraf. Egged on by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary, he read out passages from a book written by her to buttress his arguments.
The Pakistan government’s response until now was akin to a rabbit caught in headlights. But on Thursday, the federal government submitted to the full court that while the government had decided not to defend the NRO in the interests of maintaining a national consensus, the court must also confine itself to the petitions before it.
The government said that if the court wanted to rule upon wider issues other than those raised by the petitions under consideration, fresh petitions raising these issues should be filed and the government then would also decide its stand accordingly.
In its application the government asked that the arguments in court “be confined to legal issues”.
It also drew the court’s attention to the serious situation prevailing in the country, and warned that its verdict could make the difference between the destabilisation of Pakistan or its evolution as a truly democratic state.