The Pakistan Supreme Court verdict striking down the National Reconciliation Ordinance as unconstitutional and void ab initio did not come as a surprise. The NRO that was promulgated on October 2007 by former President Pervez Musharraf, a day before the presidential election, had been widely perceived as a “deal” struck by him with the former Pakistan People’s Party leader, Benazir Bhutto, to provide her relief from the corruption charges she faced. The “deal” was that the NRO would enable Bhutto to get back to Pakistan and actively participate in its politics and that, in return, her party would not oppose the General’s election. The NRO benefited, in all, over 8,000 people, most of them low-ranking officials. The list of politicians who benefited is short, but President Asif Ali Zardari is among them. Earlier this year, while declaring Gen. Musharraf’s November 3, 2007 emergency unconstitutional and illegal, the Supreme Court had asked parliament to take a decision on the NRO and a clutch of other ordinances that he had promulgated. But in the National Assembly, where the PPP does not have a majority of its own, even its allies baulked at legislating an ordinance seen as “legitimising corruption.” The ordinance lapsed and the ball was back in the Supreme Court where petitions against the NRO were pending. Mindful of the inherent indefensibility of the NRO, the government decided not to defend it in the court. The only remaining issue was how far the court would go in confronting the beneficiaries, especially Mr. Zardari.

The full court comprising 17 judges that heard the case made no person-specific ruling. But its directive, contained in a short judgment, that all cases and investigations cancelled under the NRO would stand revived, as the steps taken under the scrapped law are deemed never to have occurred, is trouble enough for Mr. Zardari. Although as President he is protected from prosecution in criminal cases, the judgment now opens the way for petitions both challenging his eligibility as a candidate in the election to the office, and his constitutional immunity. Also, the Supreme Court has made it clear that the government must revive the cases against Mr. Zardari in Swiss courts, where he and his late wife were accused of laundering and stashing millions of dollars. In the coming days, as a result of the Supreme Court verdict, Mr. Zardari will come under tremendous pressure to resign. He is the least popular of the country’s political leaders, already weakened by several controversies. It is unfortunate that Mr. Zardari is also the only Pakistani leader today who has articulated a bold new vision for ties with India and has had the courage to stand up to jihadist militancy.

[See related media for text of the Short Order]

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