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Military Regime Snubbed as Asif Zardari is Acquitted by Lahore High Court

By M T Butt

ISLAMABAD, Sept 9: Jailed PPP leader and Benazir Bhutto’s husband Asif Ali Zardari scored another significant victory on Sept 9 when the Lahore High Court acquitted him in a corruption case, setting aside the 7-year jail term given to him by a special court.

The court victory in the Pakistan Steel Mills case came days after a sitting Prime Minister, Choudhry Shujaat Hussain, who later resigned to make way for Shaukat Aziz, declared the drug smuggling case against Zardari as fake.

Zardari has now been acquitted or bailed out in 8 cases while he is still being detained under the BMW Import Duty case in which his bail application is pending with the Supreme Court of Pakistan.

The record of acquittals and bails has confounded the military rulers who keep on adding new cases against the PPP leader as he is freed in old ones, despite the immense pressure used by the Army on the judiciary.

If the Supreme Court grants him bail in the BMW case, Zardari would have to be released by the military regime, unless some new case is registered. But since he is in jail since November 1996, there is hardly any room left for accusing him of any other criminal offence.

Exiled PPP leader Benazir Bhutto hailed the judgment of the Lahore High Court terming it the "triumph of justice".

She said the verdict shows that those who show patience and persevere are ultimately rewarded, adding that the decision "demonstrates that despite the clouds of darkness, the light of conscience prevails in our land."

The decision by two Judges of the Lahore High Court was expected several months back. Suddenly the bench constituted of Judges Maulvi Anwar ul Haq and Justice Aslam was broken up. After a long, legal struggle and applications before the Supreme Court of Pakistan, the Bench hearing the appeal was allowed to announce its landmark judgment. The Bench declared that Mr. Zardari should be immediately set free if he was not needed in any other matter.

The first time Mr. Zardari was ordered free by a court was in 1998. But another case was filed to stop him from his release. Mr. Zardari was arrested on the night of November 4, 1996 initially under one preventive detention law known as the Lahore Maintenance of Public Order and then under a second Karachi Maintenance of Public Order.

He was acquitted in two attempted suicide cases, one murder case (Sajjad case), one corruption case known as KESC whereas the conviction in the SGS case was also set aside in 2001. The Steel Mill case is the eighth case in which Mr. Zardari has been granted relief by the judiciary. However, there are still 14 more cases against him. He is on bail in all the cases except the BMW case.

The BMW case is so ridiculous it makes a mockery of law and justice in Pakistan. It revolves around import of a second hand car by someone other than Mr. Zardari. The duty on the second hand car was re-evaluated by the regime and a small percentage of disputed deficit was recorded as payable duty.

Since December 2001 Mr. Zardari is languishing in prison on the basis of the BMW case, which was initiated by NAB under Gen. Musharraf. Usually cases of disputed duty do not result in any arrest, either of the importer or buyer. But Zardari has been kept in jail shamelessly.

The ordeal in the Steel Mills case began in 1996 when Steel Mills Chairman late Sajjad Hussain was arrested by NAB headed by disgraced Senator Saifur Rahman. Mr. Hussain was tortured and tried to commit suicide to avoid a third arrest by the NAB authorities. His wife filed an affidavit before the Sindh High Court documenting the torture and threats to kill meted out to Mr. Hussain if he refused to implicate a "VVIP" meaning Mr. Zardari.

Subsequently the Chairman Mr. Hussain was killed amid doubts whether it was a planned murder by the State or the result of random violence, which had plagued the city of Karachi.

The LHC Rawalpindi bench set aside the conviction awarded by the Accountability Court on October in dubious circumstances. The judgment was announced at 9 pm at night, after military authorities stopped the judge from giving his verdict during court hours.

The prosecution had claimed that a meeting allegedly took place between Asif Zardari and the Steel Mill Chairman on September 14, 1995 between 6.30 pm and 7 pm in the Prime Minister’s house regarding kickbacks.

However the prosecution’s case fell apart during examination. A witness deposed that Mr. Zardari was accompanying the Prime Minister to Lahore that day and could not have met Steel Chairman at Islamabad as the prosecution claimed.

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