Pakistan’s Asif Ali Zardari to escape charges court sought to have reinstated

McClatchy Foreign StaffJune 20, 2013 

— Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari apparently has outlasted a pile of defaming corruption cases instigated against him in the 1990s and will be able to leave office later this year without fear that he’ll face criminal prosecution.

The one charge that had threatened to stick, a money-laundering case lodged in Switzerland against Zardari and his late wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, won’t be reinstated, Swiss prosecutors told Pakistani authorities in a letter that was delivered in February but made public only this week.

Responding to a letter that Pakistan’s government wrote last year on the order of the country’s Supreme Court, prosecutors in the Swiss canton of Geneva said Pakistan had 10 days to appeal. That time had long passed by the time the letter was brought to the attention of the Supreme Court on Tuesday.

What became of the letter after its receipt remains unclear. At the time it arrived, the government was led by the Pakistan Peoples Party, of which Zardari is the head in all but name. The party had steadfastly resisted Supreme Court demands that charges be reinstated against Zardari, an effort that cost one prime minister in the party his job.

But the letter went missing from the law ministry’s records, and its contents were discovered only when a new government took over after May’s elections and sought a copy through its embassy in Switzerland. The new prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, also was the prime minister in the 1990s, when Zardari’s business practices became the subject of criminal probes.

The Swiss charges were the toughest to shake: A Geneva court convicted Zardari and Bhutto, who twice served as prime minister, in 2003 of laundering $12 million in kickbacks allegedly paid by Swiss cargo-inspection companies in return for being awarded a lucrative Pakistani government customs contract. Swiss authorities also froze $60 million that allegedly belonged to offshore companies in which Zardari was a shareholder.

The guilty verdict was overturned on appeal in 2004, prompting a wider investigation and prosecution. A verdict was imminent in 2008 when a newly elected Pakistani government, led by Zardari’s party, wrote to legal authorities in Geneva, asking them to drop the charges on the grounds that they were politically motivated.

The new Sharif administration has demonstrated no interest in pursuing any of the charges, largely because Sharif and Bhutto reconciled their differences when they were living in exile during the military junta of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who overthrew Sharif in 1999. Sharif had apologized to Bhutto for the cases, which he admitted were motivated by their political rivalry.

The law ministry in Islamabad said the prosecutor general of Geneva, Daniel Zappelli, gave three grounds for refusing to reopen the case: The five-year time limit on reinitiating proceedings had passed, no new evidence had been presented against Zardari and there was clearly a disagreement between the Pakistani government and the Supreme Court over whether Zardari, as the president, was immune from prosecution or eligible to stand trial again.

Zardari will be president until September, when his five-year term ends. He’s said he won’t seek re-election, something he almost certainly would have been denied in any case because of his party’s dismal performance in the May voting, when it suffered its worst electoral defeat since it was founded in the 1960s.

Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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