A court dropped graft cases against the husband of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto on Wednesday, a move that could improve relations between Pakistan's US-backed president and the party set to lead its new government. Bhutto's party came in first in last month's parliamentary elections, routing supporters of President Pervez Musharraf and triggering calls for the former military strongman to quit.
Wednesday's ruling in favor of Asif Ali Zardari in an anti-corruption court will anger some ordinary Pakistanis but may smooth the way for a new administration to take office and begin tackling urgent issues including rising Islamic extremism. Police said Wednesday they had detained eight suspected militants for questioning about a suicide attack the previous day on a naval college in Lahore that killed four people.
Also Wednesday, a court convicted and sentenced to death an alleged militant on charges of orchestrating a suicide blast that killed an American diplomat, David Foy, and three Pakistanis in Karachi in 2006. The suspect, Anwarul Haq, plans to appeal the conviction.
The anti-corruption court in Rawalpindi ordered prosecutors to terminate five long-standing cases against Zardari under an order given by Musharraf last year.
"He has been acquitted," said Farooq Naek, Zardari's attorney. Government prosecutor Zulfikar Ahmad Bhutta confirmed that the cases had been dropped. He said property including businesses and a bulletproof limousine would be returned immediately to Zardari. The National Reconciliation Ordinance instructed courts to dismiss corruption cases against politicians and bureaucrats dating from before Musharraf seized power in a 1999 coup. The ordinance paved the way for Bhutto's return from exile before she was slain in a December suicide attack.
Last week, the Supreme Court lifted a stay order on the ordinance, opening the way for Wednesday's ruling. The cases dropped include charges of illegal payments relating to the purchase of thousands of Polish tractors and the construction of a polo ground inside the prime minister's residence. Zardari spent years in jail without being convicted and insists the charges were politically motivated.
Naek and Bhutto forecast that another judge would terminate the last two outstanding cases against Zardari at another hearing on March 12. An alleged money-laundering case is still pending against Zardari in Switzerland.
Zardari, a former Cabinet minister, acquired the nickname Mr Ten Percent for allegedly pocketing kickbacks during the 1990s when his wife led two short-lived governments.
His return is eyed with suspicion by many Pakistanis, for whom he symbolizes a decade of corruption and misrule that nearly bankrupted Pakistan.
But Bhutto's killing and Zardari's takeover of her party have made him a key figure in Pakistan's fraught journey back toward democracy after years of military rule.
Some of the opposition parties who trounced Musharraf's supporters in the Feb. 18 parliamentary vote and are expected to form a coalition government want to drive the president from office. But Zardari and his party appear more conciliatory. Party leaders are expected to announce their candidate for prime minister on Thursday. Zardari is ineligible because he did not stand in the elections. Makhdoom Amin Fahim, a cautious aristocrat, is the favorite.
In an interview broadcast on Dawn News television on Wednesday, Fahim would not comment on Musharraf's future and suggested economic issues such as inflation and power outages were more pressing priorities.
Naek, also a senior party leader, praised the Supreme Court for reviving the reconciliation ordinance, even though the court was purged by Musharraf when he declared emergency rule last November. Asked whether the end of the corruption cases made it easier for the party to work with Musharraf, Naek said, "We do not believe in politics of revenge, and we believe that there should be coexistence between democratic forces."
Fahim said parliament would decide whether to restore the judges.
Associated Press writers Asif Shahzad in Lahore and Ashraf Khan in Karachi contributed to this report.