ISLAMABAD, Oct 12: The Supreme Court on Friday set back the government’s programme of cleansing Benazir Bhutto and other politicians of corruption charges under the National Reconciliation Ordinance by declaring that benefits drawn would be subject to its decisions on petitions challenging the legality of the ordinance.

A three-member bench comprising Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, Justice Mohammad Nawaz Abbasi and Mian Shakirullah Jan, however, declined to stay the operation of the NRO.

“Ordinarily portions of the law are never suspended, but any action and benefit drawn or intended to be drawn by any of the public office-holder shall be subject to the decision on the petitions,” it observed.

The NRO provides amnesty to holders of public offices in corruption cases between 1986 and 1999.“Beneficiaries will also not be entitled to claim any protection of a concluded action under sections 6 and 7 under any principle of law if the court decides that this ordinance and its provisions are against the Constitution, it said.

The chief justice described the ordinance as being against the public interest because it gave a blanket cover to those who had committed corruption.

President Pervez Musharraf had on Oct 5 promulgated the NRO 2007 which gives immediate relief to PPP chairperson Benazir Bhutto. She will get indemnity in all cases registered against her by the Nawaz Sharif government.

Jamaat-i-Islami chief Qazi Hussain Ahmed, PML (N) President Shahbaz Sharif, retired bureaucrat Roidad Khan, Tariq Assad and former PPP stalwart Dr Mubashar Hasan have challenged the ordinance in the Supreme Court under Article 184 (3) of the Constitution.

The court clubbed the five petitions for hearing by a larger bench to be constituted after three weeks and served notices on Attorney-General Malik Mohammad Qayyum, the National Accountability Bureau and federal and provincial governments.

The attorney-general, who was present in the courtroom, said he was there only to take notes of the proceeding.

Immediately after the announcement, PPP spokesperson Farhatullah Babar said that the NRO had neither been suspended nor struck down.

When asked if the decision was a setback for the PPP chairperson and her husband Asif Zardari who had sought acquittal in 11 different corruption cases from the Rawalpindi accountability courts on the basis of the NRO, he only said the party would release its reaction to the decision after going through the final judgment of the court.

Ms Bhutto is likely to arrive in Karachi on Oct 18 after spending eight and a half years in self-exile. The court in its order also said that due to importance of the case, assistance of amicii curiae (friends of the court) would be required and requested former LHC chief justice Mian Allah Nawaz, former SHC judge Shaiq Usmani and Advocate Sardar Khan to assist it.

Advocate Salman Raja, counsel for Dr Mubashar Hasan, argued that the ordinance was against all norms of decency, rather a mockery of truth and reconciliation. “Under Article 45 of the Constitution, the president can only pardon or remit a sentence, but he has no authority to suspend or give indemnity on pending cases,” he said

The counsel said the ordinance had mala fide intentions to provide protection to those who had plundered the national wealth. The ordinance, he pleaded, violated fundamental rights of the people and was against the political justice. “It also contravenes the United Nations Convention against Corruption to which Pakistan is also a signatory.”

The court declined petitioners’ request to stay the operation of the ordinance.