In the last few weeks, news reports have appeared in the US which mischaracterize the history of allegations against Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari. The publication “KGS Nightwatch,” a nightly national security newsletter, reported that Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari “was disqualified from the start to ever serve in any public office because of his prior graft convictions and ongoing criminal investigations in Switzerland.” An NPR story reported that “the government of Switzerland opened an investigation into Zardari’s financial dealings, but the case was closed with no action taken.” These reports are factually incorrect.
Here are the facts: Asif Zardari was first convicted in 1999 by the Lahore High Court on corruption charges. In 2001, Pakistani intelligence documents including recording of phone conversations leaked to The Sunday Times (UK) showed that the presiding judge, Justice Malik Muhammad Qayyum, had been secretly colluding on the case with PML-N officials including then Chief Minister of Punjab Shahbaz Sharif. Pakistan’s Supreme Court overturned the conviction in 2001.
In 1998, then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif also initiated a case on the same allegations against Asif Zardari in Switzerland (not the Swiss authorities themselves). A Swiss magistrate convicted Zardari in absentia in 2003, but later that same year, a Swiss tribunal overturned the conviction on appeal. While it is true that opposition politicians continued to press the cases in Switzerland, they had not been able to secure a conviction by the time the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) was promulgated four years later. Daniel Zappelli, Geneva’s chief prosecutor, told Reuters in 2008 that “In the SGS/Cotecna case, no funds belonging to Benazir Bhutto were found,” and that he did not have sufficient evidence to bring Zardari to trial.
In short, neither conviction was able to withstand scrutiny.
Both convictions must be viewed in the historical and political contexts in which they were carried out. The Lahore High Court was proven to be pursuing the original case against in collaboration with government officials. Additionally, during the 1990s, the ISI was carrying out a secret program to defeat PPP candidates. Nawaz Sharif has also reported admitted that the Ehtesab (Accountability) Bureau initiated political cases against PPP leaders.
Nowhere does Pakistan’s constitution prohibit the subject of ongoing investigations or the victim of political attacks from holding public office. In contrast to recent news reports, Asif Zardari was and is eligible to serve as President of Pakistan. Reports that suggest otherwise erroneously and unhelpfully undermine the credibility Pakistan’s burgeoning democratic system.