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Friday, June 22, 2012 - Page updated at 10:00 p.m.
Pakistan court orders arrest of PM candidate, a presidential ally
By DECLAN WALSH
The New York Times
ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's judiciary stepped up its assault on government authority Thursday when a court, prompted by a military-run anti-drug agency, issued an arrest warrant for a close ally of President Asif Ali Zardari.
The move was the first open entry of the military into the deepening struggle between the judiciary and Zardari's government this week, beginning with the Supreme Court's dismissal of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on Tuesday.
In crisis meetings of Zardari's Pakistan Peoples Party over the past two days, Makhdoom Shahabuddin, a party stalwart and former health minister from Punjab province, emerged as the next nominee for prime minister. But hours after Shahabuddin's nomination, the military-run Anti-Narcotics Force prompted a magistrates court to order his arrest on charges relating to the illegal production of a controlled drug.
The court also issued an arrest warrant for Ali Musa Gilani, a son of the departing prime minister, in the same case.
Zardari's party seemed to respond with more resignation than outrage, and soon two new party figures had stepped forward for the prime-minister nomination: Qamar Zaman Kaira, a former information minister, and Raja Pervez Ashraf, a former minister for water and power. The party said it would make its choice Friday.
The surprise court maneuver highlights the growing difficulty of separating law from politics in Pakistan's turbulent power equation.
While the country's maverick chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, has won popular support for a series of hard-hitting decisions aimed at powerful figures, worries are growing that his aggressive and sometimes nakedly partisan pursuit of Zardari dangerously erodes the country's fragile democratic foundations.
The court ousted Gilani as prime minister because he refused to reopen a long-dormant corruption investigation of Zardari's finances in Switzerland. Gilani argued that, as president, Zardari had immunity from prosecution that is mandated under the Constitution.
Zardari's supporters, and many analysts, say the court appears bent on toppling the government, just nine months before it is due to hold elections — a landmark that, if reached, would represent the first time a Pakistani government had completed its five-year term.
Experts say early elections are increasingly likely, although much depends on how far Chaudhry is willing to go against the government.
"It feels like we're going back to the future," said Abbas Nasir, a former editor of the newspaper Dawn. "OK, the government may be inept or corrupt. But if it's such a disaster, let's just wait and vote them out."
Lurking in the background, meanwhile, is the powerful military, which harbors a deep animosity toward Zardari, who is considered unreliable on foreign and national-security issues related to India, Afghanistan and the United States.
Although the generals had been largely quiet through the political crisis, some have now entered the fray.
In court Thursday, the lead investigator for the Anti-Narcotics Force, Brig. Faheem Ahmed Khan, obtained arrest warrants for Shahabuddin and Gilani's son. In an earlier hearing, Khan accused Ali Musa Gilani of using his father's influence to authorize the illegal production of about 20,900 pounds of ephedrine, a controlled drug used to manufacture methamphetamine, in 2010, when Shahabuddin was health minster. Shahabuddin and Ali Musa Gilani have both rejected the drug accusations.
Salman Raja, a lawyer for Ali Musa Gilani, said the Anti-Narcotics Force had exerted considerable pressure on senior Health Ministry officials in recent weeks to testify against Gilani.
"You have to place this in the later context of the army flexing its muscles," Raja added. "Today, all of Pakistan's institutions and centers of criticism — the courts, Parliament, the media — are under a question mark. Except the army."
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