Supreme Court ruling puts Bhutto amnesty in doubt

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Pakistan's Supreme Court has added more uncertainty to the country's future by vowing to consider the legality of an amnesty allowing Benazir Bhutto to return to frontline politics.

Though the court refused to suspend the amnesty signed a week ago by President Pervez Musharraf, it said that the National Reconciliation Ordinance could still be reversed.

For now, it appears that Ms Bhutto will return to Pakistan next week – she is due to fly into Karachi on Thursday morning. The former prime minister's expected return from exile in London and Dubai was confirmed by an agreement between her and General Musharraf which quashed a series of outstanding corruption charges against her and other politicians.

In exchange, Ms Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party agreed to abstain from, rather than boycott, the presidential election held last weekend which General Musharraf won by a landslide.

Ms Bhutto's lawyer, Senator Babar Awan, confirmed yesterday that she would be returning to Pakistan as planned to head her party's campaign in parliamentary elections, expected to be held next January. It is those elections on which Ms Bhutto is pinning her hopes of making history by securing a third term as the country's prime minister and operating in a power-sharing arrangement with General Musharraf.

"The National Reconciliation Ordinance has not been stayed or suspended by the Supreme Court, and there is no pending case against Benazir Bhutto. She will come back, and there is no hurdle in her way," he said.

General Musharraf's government has said it will not do anything to prevent Ms Bhutto from returning, but has requested she wait until the Supreme Court has ruled on separate legal challenges against his candidacy. The court is due to take up those cases next Wednesday, the day before Ms Bhutto is due to return.

Pakistan's attorney general, Malik Mohammed Qayyum, confirmed yesterday that the government would not hinder Ms Bhutto but he also warned that she may have to contend with the court's decision, which is not expected for at least three weeks.

"If she wants to come back, the cases will not come in her way. But if, subsequently, the Supreme Court rules otherwise, then the cases will be revived and the law will take its own course," he said.

Not everyone in Ms Bhutto's PPP is pleased with her deal with General Musharraf at a time when his popularity appears to have sunk to a new low. A new poll by the Washington International Republican Institute suggested that support for the military leader stood at just 21 per cent, down from 63 per cent in September last year.

Asked who would make the best leader, respondents put General Musharraf in third place behind Ms Bhutto and another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. The number of people saying General Musharraf should stand down as head of the armed forces had risen to 70 per cent.

Public support for General Musharraf, who seized power in a coup in 1999, has fallen since the spring when he sought to oust the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court for reasons that were transparently political. His handling of the Red Mosque siege, which resulted in the deaths of more than 100 people and a series of retaliatory attacks from extremists, also lost him support.

The deal between Ms Bhutto and General Musharraf is strongly backed by the US and Britain.