Pakistan Supreme Court and government reach deal on crucial letter

Agreement on the letter brings a long-running dispute near to an end. Pictured is President Asif Ali Zardari.

Story highlights

  • Supreme Court justices approve a draft of a letter to Swiss authorities
  • The letter is related to old corruption cases against President Zardari
  • Agreement on the letter brings a long-running dispute near to an end
  • The conflict already brought down a prime minister earlier this year

A long-running conflict between the Pakistani government and the Supreme Court over old corruption cases against President Asif Ali Zardari appeared to move close to a resolution Wednesday as the two sides reached agreement on a crucial letter.

But the accord left open the question of whether Zardari will ever have to stand trial over the cases.

After three years of quarreling, the Supreme Court approved a draft of a letter from the Pakistani government to the Swiss authorities about the corruption cases, said Law and Justice Minister Farooq H. Naek after meeting with the judges.

The cases relate to money-laundering charges from the 1990s against Zardari and his late wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. The prime minister at the time, Nawaz Sharif, asked Switzerland to open the cases against his political rivals.

When Bhutto was prime minister, Zardari was accused so many times of corruption, stealing from government coffers and accepting kickbacks that Pakistanis derisively labeled him "Mr. 10%."

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A Swiss court convicted Zardari and Bhutto of some of the charges in absentia in 2003.

But in 2007, President Pervez Musharraf granted amnesties to Zardari, Bhutto and hundreds of other politicians. Musharraf's attorney general, Malik Qayum, wrote a letter to Swiss authorities withdrawing Pakistani involvement in the cases against Zardari.

Bhutto was assassinated in December 2007 during a campaign stop.

The Pakistani Supreme Court declared the amnesties unconstitutional in 2009, saying Qayum's letter was "unauthorized and illegal."

The court has been pressing the Pakistani government to send a fresh letter to the Swiss authorities asking them to discount Qayum's request and therefore leaving open the possibility of the cases against Zardari being revived.

Earlier this year, the court convicted the prime minister at the time, Yousuf Raza Gilani, of contempt for refusing to send a letter to Switzerland and ousted him from office. Gilani is a member of Zardari's Pakistan Peoples Party.

The government has now drafted the letter after the court began contempt proceedings against Gilani's successor, Raja Pervez Ashraf.

"This was the first time an honest attempt had been made to draft the letter," said Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, who headed the bench in the Supreme Court on Wednesday. He called the government's effort "praiseworthy."

The Supreme Court said the Law and Justice Ministry had four weeks to translate and send the letter to the Swiss authorities. The court will reconvene on the matter on November 14.

But whether the letter will prompt Swiss authorities to take any action remains unclear.

"Even if the letter is sent, it does not mean the corruption case against Zardari will necessarily be reinitiated," Babar Sattar a legal expert and lawyer said Wednesday.

Naek, the justice minister, was adamant that that there was no threat to Zardari as a result of the letter.

"There is no question of a trial, even in that country," he said, referring to Switzerland.

The judges' approval of the draft of the letter is "the best decision for this country, nation and democracy," Naek said.

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