Pakistan's President Zardari faces legal challenge

ISLAMABAD Mon May 17, 2010 5:12pm EDT

Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari talks during news conference after Turkey-Afghanistan-Pakistan IV. Trilateral Summit Meeting in Istanbul January 25, 2010. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari talks during news conference after Turkey-Afghanistan-Pakistan IV. Trilateral Summit Meeting in Istanbul January 25, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Osman Orsal

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ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - A Pakistani court asked President Asif Ali Zardari on Monday to explain how he can be co-chairman of the country's ruling party and head of state at the same time, a lawyer said.

Separately, Zardari set aside sentences issued by anti-corruption courts in 2004 against his interior minister and close aide, Rehman Malik, hours after a high court dismissed Malik's challenge to them, a presidential spokesman said.

The legal challenge to Zardari over his two posts does not pose an immediate threat to the unpopular president but it is a reminder of the legal difficulties he faces, legal analysts said.

The Pakistan Lawyers Forum (PLF) filed a petition, or a challenge, questioning the right of the president to hold the two offices and in response, the High Court in the city of Lahore ordered Zardari's principal secretary to explain.

"Since the president could not appear because of security reasons, the court asked his principal secretary to appear in court on May 25," PLF president A.K. Dogar told reporters outside the court.

There is no constitutional bar on the president holding office in a political party but Dogar said the Supreme Court had in the past barred a president from holding a party post.

"Our Supreme Court judges decided in 1993 that the president should be non-partisan. He should not involve himself in political battles. He should shun politics but here he is a party head, which is illegal," he said.

Zardari, the widower of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, is co-chairman of her Pakistan People's Party (PPP), which emerged the biggest party after a February 2008 general election and heads a ruling coalition.

Their son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who is a student in Britain, is the other party co-chairman.

POLITICAL INFLUENCE

The president, dogged by corruption accusations stemming from the 1990s, when Benazir Bhutto served two terms as prime minister, has struggled to win the popularity his wife enjoyed.

His political enemies question his legitimacy to rule and some want to see old corruption cases against him revived, even though he enjoys presidential immunity.

The Supreme Court, which in December threw out a controversial law that had protected Zardari and others, including Malik, has called for old corruption cases against him to be revived.

The court has taken up a case against the government for not seeking the revival of money-laundering cases against Zardari in Swiss courts. Zardari spent 11 years in jail on various charges but was never convicted.

In a move sure to ignite further criticism, late Monday night Zardari pardoned Malik, the country's interior minister.

"The president has set aside the sentences on the advice of the prime minister," spokesman Farhatullah Babar told Reuters on Tuesday.

Malik was seeking the dismissal of two corruption charges, carrying three-year sentences each, which had been reinstated by the Supreme Court's rejection of a controversial amnesty law in December last year.

But a high court in the city of Lahore on Monday dismissed his petition challenging the sentences issued by anti-corruption courts in 2004.

Nuclear-armed Pakistan is a key ally of United States as it struggles to bring stability to neighboring Afghanistan.

Political turmoil, which a sustained challenge to Zardari would likely incite, would distract the government from its campaign against Islamist militants on the Afghan border and dismay the United States and other allies with troops in Afghanistan, and worry investors.

Zardari handed over most of the president's powers to the prime minister last month, partly to mollify his critics.

Nevertheless, he retains considerable political influence as head of the PPP and vulnerable to various legal challenges.

(Additional reporting by Mubasher Bukhari; Editing by Chris Allbritton and Jon Boyle)

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