By DECLAN WALSH
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – The high-stakes battle between Pakistan’s judiciary and government took a fresh twist on Thursday when a court issued an arrest warrant for a close ally of President Asif Ali Zardari, effectively blocking his nomination as the country’s next prime minister.
Mr. Zardari wanted Makhdoom Shahabuddin, a former health minister from Punjab Province, to replace Yousaf Raza Gilani, who was dismissed as prime minister by the Supreme Court on Wednesday.
But hours after Mr. Shahabuddin’s nomination, a magistrates court, prompted by the military-run Anti-Narcotics Force, ordered his arrest to face charges relating to the illegal production of a controlled drug two years ago.
The court also issued an arrest warrant for Ali Musa Gilani, a son of the outgoing prime minister, in relation to the same case.
The ruling party Pakistan Peoples Party quickly nominated a new candidate, former information minister Qamar Zaman Kaira, who now looks likely to become the prime minister after a vote in parliament on Friday.
The dramatic court manoeuver highlights the growing difficulty of separating law from politics in the country’s rapidly evolving machinations of power.
Mr. Zardari’s supporters, and some analysts, say judiciary is using its widening powers to erode the authority of the government and ultimately push it from power. “Absolutely no subtlety anymore in going after the govt. Amazing,” wrote Nadeem F. Paracha, a newspaper columnist, on Twitter.
The Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, insists it is standing its ground against an incompetent and corruption-riddled administration. At the same time, it has shrugged off corrosive graft accusations against the Mr. Chaudhry’s son.
In the background, meanwhile, lies the country’s powerful military generals, who also harbor deep animosity towards Mr. Zardari. Until now largely quiet, with the arrests ordered in the drugs case they have now entered the fray.
The Anti-Narcotics Force, which has aggressively pursued the investigation that led to Mr. Shahabuddin’s arrest warrant on Thursday, is headed by a two-star general. The warrant was obtained by the lead investigator, Brig. Faheem Ahmed Khan, who is also a serving officer.
The antidrug force has alleged in court that Ali Musa Gilani used his father’s name to obtain the illegal production of 9,500 kilograms of ephedrine, a controlled drug used to manufacture the recreational drug metamphetamine, in 2010, at a time when Mr. Shahabuddin was health minster.
Both Mr. Gilani and Mr. Shahabuddin have rejected the charges, and their supporters say they are part of a wider power battle involving the judiciary, government and military.
Salman Raja, a lawyer for Ali Musa Gilani, said there was no substantial evidence against his client. He accused the Anti-Narcotics Force of pressuring senior health ministry officials to testify against Mr. Gilani.
“They have been badgering and harassing people in the Ministry of Health, begging them to name him. It’s all very cynical and targeted. An absolute disgrace,” Mr. Raja said in a telephone interview.
It is not the only case that has tarnished the son of a leading public figure. Last week Pakistanis were riveted when Malik Riaz Hussain, a billionaire property developer, claimed to have given $3.7 million in kickbacks to Chief Justice Chaudhry’s son, Arsalan Iftikhar, in a bid to influence the outcome of several court cases.
The scandal spread to the media when it emerged that two senior journalists had orchestrated a television interview with Mr. Hussain.
Mr. Gilani, the former prime minister, was ousted this week because he refused court orders to re-open a dormant corruption probe into Mr. Zardari’s finances in Switzerland. Mr. Gilani argued that as president Mr. Zardari enjoyed immunity from prosecution.
“You have to place this in the later context of the army flexing its muscles,” said Mr. Raja, the lawyer for Mr. Gilani’s son. “Today, all of Pakistan’s institutions and centers of criticism – the courts, parliament, the media – are under a question mark. Except the army.”
Courtesy: The New York Times