The Swiss conundrum

Published February 5, 2012

WRITE the letter, don’t write the letter, write the letter, don’t write the letter … Sit down with a flower and pluck at its petals and if you’re name isn’t Asif Ali Zardari your almost sure to end at ‘write the letter’.

But it’s Zardari who will decide whether the letter is to be written or not and his petals all appear to be saying the same thing, ‘don’t write the letter’. Why? As with so much else, there are only theories here.

Let’s start with the legal ones. There’s something in Switzerland that Zardari is genuinely afraid of, is the main theory. The justices of the Supreme Court also have a hunch that a gotcha moment lies within grasp, if only the legal process in Switzerland could be kick-started somehow. Ergo, the insistence on the Swiss letter.

What bombshell, if any, lies in Switzerland is hard to say sitting here in Pakistan because so little is known about Swiss law.

Looking backwards, though, Ehtesabur Rehman and NAB weren’t able to nail Zardari despite throwing fistfuls of cash and the best legal minds at the problem.

Realistically, then, what great legal minefield could await Zardari now when it would be his own government going through the charade of trying to nab its boss? Inspector Clouseau minus the success, that’s what a PPP-guided process would look like.No, it’s all about some kind of statute of limitations, is another theory. Both Zardari and the SC know that the book will be shut on the Swiss cases forever if the letter isn’t written soon. Whether the cut-off is April or May or September is difficult to say definitively — remember, so little is known about Swiss law — but there’s an unspoken battle over timelines. That’s why the SC has pushed the NRO case so hard after a period of relative quiet, this theory suggests.

If this theory is true, it still doesn’t explain why Zardari would be willing to risk sacrificing his presidency over a statute of limitations. Option 1 of the ‘six options’ given in the NRO implementation judgment suggests Zardari himself could be permanently barred from holding public office for violating his presidential oath by preventing the NRO judgment from being implemented in totality.

So, Zardari wants to get past the deadline for reopening the Swiss cases to make sure he doesn’t face prosecution, now or ever.

The court, sensing the deadline is near, is pushing hard to prevent the cases from being chucked into oblivion. They have hauled the PM up for contempt, just one step away from the option of directly knocking Zardari out of the presidency.

No presidency, no immunity, which would mean all the local cases against Zardari could be reactivated. So why dare the court to go for the nuclear option when writing the letter could, at worst, merely reopen a process that may have some serious consequences for Zardari down the road? There are just too many ifs on one side versus the SC’s determination to get its order implemented on the other.

Aha, but that’s the problem. Write the letter and it will become the thin edge of the wedge, causing all manner of new legal woes for Zardari, according to yet another theory. The money in the Swiss accounts has been withdrawn and were the Swiss to try as a first step to figure out where it has gone, it might be traced to you-know-who. Or, write the letter and immunity could be read down further here, leading to the reopening of old cases inside Pakistan.

Outside the legal thicket, there are the political calculations. Writing the letter would open the door to all manner of lurid accusations, old and new, that Zardari is determined to avoid, goes one of the political theories.

Imagine the PM does write the letter. The media and the opposition would run with it to the far corners of Pakistan, breathlessly announcing that even Zardari’s own prime minister thinks he’s corrupt. Or the letter would trigger a drip-drip of stories from Switzerland and Pakistan, reminding everyone that Zardari and his cronies aren’t just incompetent, they’re epically corrupt, and this just as campaign season gets under way. Zardari just doesn’t want the bad publicity, this theory goes.

The problem with this theory is that Zardari and his cronies’ reputations are already toast. No story about Zardari, here or abroad, ends without some mention of his corruption. Take the Swiss cases out of the picture and Zardari’s reputation doesn’t exactly bounce back.

The martyr theory is even less probable. Zardari wants to be chucked out because he can run to the base and cry foul, yet another PPP government being chucked out before its time. But political victimisation has to be plausible. With memogate receding and the main political opposition, the PML-N, once again making cooperative noises, the government doesn’t exactly look like it’s under siege. If anything, it looks like it can plod on towards general elections on its own terms.

While anything is possible in Pakistan, building a grand theory of persecution over a Supreme Court order to write a letter to Switzerland is seriously unlikely at this point in time. To claim persecution it has to look like persecution or else it’s just the wail of players who can’t accept they’ve been outsmarted.

So, any which way you cut it, the most practical thing to do would be to write the letter, take your chances in Switzerland and your lumps in Pakistan, and live to fight another day.

Write the letter, don’t write the letter, write the letter …

Maybe someone needs to hand Zardari a different set of petals.

The writer is a member of staff.

cyril.a@gmail.com

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