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The history of the Swiss case

June 20, 2012

President Asif Ali Zardari.—Illustration by Faraz Aamer Khan/Dawn.com
President Asif Ali Zardari.—Illustration by Faraz Aamer Khan/Dawn.com

Contrary to the views of many in Pakistan, June 19, 2012 was one of the bleakest days for democracy in the country. An elected prime minister was disqualified by the highest bench of the judiciary on charges of contempt of court. The case made history as it remains the only case in Pakistan which resulted in the termination and disqualification of an elected representative of the parliament.

The contempt of court case was initiated against Yousuf Raza Gilani when he refused to correspond with the Swiss authorities to reopen money laundering case against President Asif Ali Zardari

The history of the case can be traced back to the first term of Benazir Bhutto. It all began when the constitutional order was amended which empowered the president and restricted the prime minister’s powers. Ghulam Ishaq Khan was elected as the president of the country in 1988 and appointed Benazir Bhutto as the prime minister of Pakistan. However, the power struggle between them was evident from the beginning which came to an end when Khan in August 1990 dissolved the national assembly and dismissed Bhutto on charges pertaining to corruption as well as failure to maintain law and order.

Muhammad Nawaz Sharif was elected as the prime minister on November 1, 1990. However, in 1993, Khan again exercised his power through the eighth amendment of the Constitution and dismissed Sharif. The Supreme Court intervened and reinstated Sharif which eventually forced Khan to resign but Sharif’s term ended in the same year.

In 1993 Bhutto was re-elected as the prime minister of the country. Bhutto’s second tenure marked many controversial events including the assassination of Mir Murtaza Bhutto which sabotaged her political career significantly. The then president, Farooq Laghari, dismissed her government after three years over charges of corruption and mismanagement.

Asif Ali Zardari, although never convicted, was in prison from 1997 to 2004 on charges pertaining to money laundering, corruption and murder.

Sharif was re-elected as the prime minister of Pakistan and initiated the case in Switzerland in 1998 which accused Benazir and Asif Zardari to have embezzled $60 million in kickbacks in Swiss bank accounts. In August 2003, both, Benazir and Zardari were found guilty of the scam. However the penalties that summed up to a fine of $100‚000‚ and the order that they return some $2 million to the Government of Pakistan‚ were suspended on appeal.

In 2007, Benazir and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) allegedly negotiated a deal with Pervez Musharraf who issued an amnesty law under which the corruption cases were considered closed. However, in 2009, soon after his reinstatement, Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry who was suspended by Musharraf in 2007, ordered to reopen the Swiss case. However, Daniel Zappelli‚ Switzerland’s prosecutor-general said that head of the state cannot be prosecuted as he enjoys immunity and if Pakistani authorities decide to lift the immunity then he should be tried in his own country.

In the latter half of 2010, Saif-ur-Rehman, who served as the interior minister during Sharif’s second term, revealed the fact that Sharif coerced the judgement on Swiss case against Bhutto and Zardari. The proceedings of the Swiss case were expedited on Sharif’s demands and the penalty was also influenced by him.

The proceedings and the verdict, as revealed by Saif-ur-Rehman, cast doubt on the authenticity and transparency of the same.

In 2011, the Supreme Court ordered Gilani to send a letter to Swiss authorities to reopen the graft case against the head of the state. However, Gilani did not comply with court’s orders because he was of the view that Zardari enjoys immunity being the head of state. The Supreme Court charged the former prime minister with contempt of court and declared him convicted of the same on April 26, 2012. Gilani was formally disqualified on June 19, 2012.