ISLAMABAD (AFP) — Pakistan's Supreme Court said Friday it will decide whether a government amnesty for former premier Benazir Bhutto is legal, setting up a fresh showdown with President Pervez Musharraf.
The move means Bhutto, who party aides insist will return to Pakistan on October 18, could still face corruption charges if the court overturns the controversial "reconciliation ordinance" that Musharraf signed a week ago.
Musharraf has been at odds with the court since trying to sack its chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, in March, and the court will next week hear appeals against the military ruler's win in a presidential vote.
Chaudhry on Friday agreed to hear five appeals against the amnesty, which clears all politicians charged with graft between 1985 and 1999 and was supposed to pave the way for a Musharraf-Bhutto power-sharing deal.
Those receiving an amnesty will "not be entitled to claim any protection (from prosecution) if this court concludes that the ordinance and its provisions are beyond the constitution," he said, and set the next hearing for three weeks' time.
A Bhutto aide said Friday that the former premier's return will go ahead next week and she will fly directly from Dubai instead of going back to London first and then returning to Pakistan via the UAE.
"The Supreme Court's decision will not affect Mrs Bhutto's plan to return to Pakistan on October 18," Mohammad Akram Farooqui, president of her Pakistan People's Party in the United Arab Emirates, told AFP.
The amnesty accord was one of Bhutto's conditions for a US-backed power-sharing pact with Musharraf ahead of parliamentary elections to be held in early January, in which she plans to lead her Pakistan People's Party.
The charges against Bhutto refer to 1.5 billion dollars which she and her husband allegedly siphoned off during her two terms in power between 1988-1990 and 1993-1996.
This week, she rejected a call by Musharraf to delay her return until Musharraf's election win had been confirmed.
Other PPP officials also insisted her travel plans would not be affected.
"Benazir Bhutto will come back to Pakistan on October 18. She will not change her programme on anybody's advice or threat of litigation," said Babar Awan, a party senator and prominent lawyer.
But a minister close to Musharraf said that the court decision "can impact future arrangements" with Bhutto.
"If the cases are not going to be withdrawn, then what is the use of her coming back?" Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid told AFP. "The judicial activism has opened up a new avenue and there is a new situation now."
Presidential aides have previously indicated that Musharraf could declare martial law if the court rules against his landslide victory in Saturday's vote for another five-year term in power.
Musharraf, who seized power in a coup eight years ago on Friday that was later rubber-stamped by the Supreme Court, himself warned against "negative" judicial activism in several interviews this week.
Chaudhry however insisted that the court was not hearing cases "against any specific individual" and ordered lawyers not to mention Bhutto, Musharraf or any other public figures by name during the court sessions.
"We are not against anyone, we only have to examine this law. We are not hearing a case against any specific individual," he said.
"This is a very important case and we have to hear it."
Musharraf suspended the independent-minded Chaudhry on misconduct charges in March, in an apparent attempt to remove legal hurdles to his contested re-election, but faced mass protests against the decision.
The Supreme Court reinstated Chaudhry in a landmark judgement in July.
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