The surprising decision has come at a time when relations between the Presidency and the superior judiciary are believed to be at their lowest ebb. A presidential spokesman, without giving any real reason for the hasty decision, said Mr Zardari had used his constitutional power on the advice of the prime minister. There was no official word from the prime minister's office till late in the night.
Earlier in the day, the high court of Punjab had upheld the decision of the anti-corruption NAB court to sentence Rehamn Malik in a case that dates back to the days when the PPP was in power in the mid-1990s, and Mr Malik was the acting head of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA).
President Zardari's unprecedented move has come at a time when the Supreme Court is already pursuing a host of cases regarding alleged corruption, many of those against members of the present government. These cases mostly date back to the days when late Benazir Bhutto was in power, but were done away with under the controversial National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) which followed a deal between her and the former military ruler.
The Supreme Court is now using its authority to persuade and instruct the National Accountability Bureau to speed up its efforts to revive those cases, including the one that was being contested in a court in Switzerland against Ms Bhutto and her husband Asif Ali Zardari.
In this particular case Rehman Malik was sentenced by a NAB court, but the matter had gone into appeal before a high court. Since the revival of the case, it was again taken up by a high court bench, which upheld the NAB court decision to sentence Mr Malik. However, within hours of the decision, and without waiting for the legal process in which an appeal could be made before the Supreme Court, President Zardari used his discretionary powers to grant remission.
Legal experts are divided on the effects of the move, with some insisting that despite the remission Mr Malik will remain a convicted person. However, senior government officials insist that he continues to remain the minister of interior and enjoys all the powers.
How the Supreme Court is likely to react remains open to debate, and many legal experts say a clearer picture will emerge when the apex court takes up the NRO-related matters in the next hearing.
According to presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar, President Zardari had used his discretionary powers to pardon Mr Malik, protecting him from a three-year sentence awarded by an accountability court in Rawalpindi in January 2004 in absentia under Section 31-A of the NAB Ordinance and upheld by the LHC.
The spokesman said that the pardon has been granted under Article 45 of the Constitution which says “The president shall have power to grant pardon, reprieve and respite, and to remit, suspend or commute any sentence passed by any court, tribunal or authority.”
Mr Malik had said that he was victimised for political reasons in his absence from the country under a law especially crafted by Gen (retd) Pervez Musharraf.
After the LHC upheld the conviction of the interior minister, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) came under immense pressure because it was required to arrest him, sources told Dawn.
The presidential spokesman and PPP's leaders claimed that a conviction could not be announced against anyone in absentia.
However, Section 31-A of the NAB Ordinance says “Any person who has absconded to avoid service of process of court or any authority or officer under NAB Ordinance is punishable with imprisonment extending to three years.”