Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Pakistan Leader Faces Court Test, Militant Attacks


ISLAMABAD -- Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari holds $1.5 billion in assets across the world, Pakistan's main anticorruption body alleged in a report delivered Tuesday to the country's Supreme Court.

The court is considering the constitutionality of an amnesty protecting the embattled leader and thousands of other officials from corruption charges.

The National Accountability Bureau, a politically independent government investigative body, gave the court a list of allegations involving Mr. Zardari, following a request by Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry.

Mr. Zardari's spokesman denied the allegations and said the asset list was inaccurate and fabricated to victimize Mr. Zardari.

"Reports of $1.5 billion of national and foreign assets allegedly belonging to President Zardari are no more than a regurgitation of decade-old unproven politically motivated allegations," said Farhatullah Babar, the chief spokesman for the president.

The court will also consider whether a presidential immunity provided by the constitution applies to cases of alleged corruption that took place before Mr. Zardari took office last year.

The hearings could open the way for challenges to the legality of Mr. Zardari's presidency, constitutional law experts said.

That would add further tension in Pakistan at a time when the U.S. ally has been hit by a series of militant attacks across country.

On Tuesday, suspected Islamist militants launched a gun, rocket and suicide attack on an intelligence office in the central Pakistan city of Multan, killing 12 people. The raid came a day after twin bombings at a market in the eastern city of Lahore killed 49.

Tuesday's attack ripped the facades off several buildings in a part of the town largely reserved for government and security agencies. Also damaged was a building housing an office of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency.

The National Accountability Bureau alleged that Mr. Zardari accumulated wealth "beyond his means." The bureau said Mr. Zardari owned properties and bank accounts in the U.S., U.K., Spain and several other countries.

This wealth was largely accumulated while his wife, Benazir Bhutto, was serving as prime minister in the 1990s, investigators said. They alleged the money had come from kickbacks and commissions on government deals.

Mr. Zardari spent a total of 11 years in jail in Pakistan while facing trial for corruption and murder charges. He was released on bail in 2004 and allowed to leave the country.

Six cases against him remained open, relating to alleged corruption. Those charges were dropped under an amnesty enforced in October 2007.

The amnesty, which was brokered by the U.S. and U.K., was introduced through a decree by former President Pervez Musharraf under a deal that paved the way for Ms. Bhutto to return home from self-imposed exile.

Ms. Bhutto was assassinated two months later, leaving Mr. Zardari to lead her party to victory in general elections in February 2008 and then become president after Gen. Musharraf resigned in August 2008.

A 17-member bench of the Supreme Court on Monday began hearing appeals by two political opponents of Mr. Zardari against the amnesty, which expired on Nov. 28 when an effort to renew it failed in Parliament.

The anticorruption body's report said Mr. Zardari had bought properties in the U.S., Britain, Spain, France and other countries through offshore companies he owned and through frontmen, according to Retired Lt. Gen. Shahid Aziz, a former chief of the National Accountability Bureau who resigned in July 2007 to protest the termination of investigations into Mr. Zardari's activities.

In the largest single payment, investigators said they had discovered a company dealing in gold in the Middle East deposited at least $10 million into an account controlled by Mr. Zardari after the Bhutto government gave the dealer a monopoly on gold imports. The money was then deposited into several bank accounts of companies owned by Mr. Zardari, investigators said. Charges in the case were dropped with the amnesty in 2007, and the gold dealer denied wrongdoing.


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