Political crisis deepens as Pakistan faces amnesty deal turmoil

Pakistan faces amnesty deal turmoil. US security firm Blackwater is accused of running covert operations in Pakistan. A leaked UN report finds the UN-backed offensive in DR Congo is failing. The US rejects landmine ban treaty. Khmer Rouge prison chief expresses remorse. All this and much more in today’s security briefing.
Rukeyya Khan
25 November 2009

The president of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, and thousands of other officials in the country could find themselves facing corruption charges as an amnesty deal exempting them from prosecution nears its deadline. The National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), drafted by former President Pervez Musharraf two years ago, has been called into question by Pakistan's Supreme Court, which has branded it unconstitutional. The deal grants more than 8,000 government bureaucrats and politicians immunity from a host of corruption and criminal charges. Fears mounted on Wednesday that the deal would collapse, a development that could force Zardari out of office and throw the country into political turmoil.

Last weekend the Pakistani government released a list of some of those who had been protected by the decree, including the interior and defence ministers. Many on the list have expressed their desire to fight the charges against them, describing them as ‘politically motivated.’ Parliament has until Saturday to decide if the deal stands or if the corruption charged should be pursued.

The openSecurity verdict: Fears over the collapse of the amnesty deal come at a crucial juncture for Pakistan as it struggles to exert its leadership on the domestic and international front. On Wednesday, a court in Pakistan charged seven suspects in connection with last year’s attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai which killed more than 160 people. These are the first people the Pakistani courts have indicted in connection with the Mumbai attacks and the move comes a week after New Delhi handed more information about the Mumbai attacks to Pakistani authorities, who it has accused of abetting the attacks, a charge Islamabad denies. The Pakistani government's steps will aid its attempts to be seen as a key player combating terrorism in the region.

The corruption charges against Zardari relate to cases before he became president, nullifying any immunity, according to the Supreme Court. Zardari is already under pressure from his opponents to give up the extraordinary powers that Musharraf added to the constitution. Any further weakening of his position could jeopardise a military offensive against insurgents in the tribal belt, as well as Pakistan’s attempts to make amends with its neighbour, India. It may also complicate policy making in Washington, where the Obama administration has supported the fight against the Taliban and is in the final stages of developing a new counter-terrorism strategy in the AfPak region.

Domestically, Pakistan's television networks are being accused of fanning political instability. In a country where nearly half the population are illiterate, the visual media holds a particularly powerful sway. News outlets are under intense criticism from all quarters in Pakistani politics. Talk show hosts have been accused of demonising the elected government and perpetuating conspiracy theories of foreign infiltration in the country. Meanwhile, others have accused the media of succumbing to the government's agenda and not allowing a fair voice to critics of the government.

The authorities have taken an unfavourable stance against criticism levelled against counter-terrorism policies in particular. This week, the authorities banned a Dubai-based show presented by a critic of the Pakistani government on Pakistan's most influential private channel, GEO TV. The lack of popular trust in the government in Pakistan comes amidst insecurity and economic turmoil in the country. The impediment of political debate and discussion is likely to fuel more opposition towards the government’s policies and destabilise the government at a crucial time.

Blackwater accused of running covert operations in Pakistan

US investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill has claimed the private security firm Blackwater, now known as Xe, is conducting secret operations in Pakistan that include planning assassinations of suspected Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives. In an article published on Monday in The Nation magazine, he alleged that the firm is also involved in running US military drone bombing campaigns in Pakistan. Scahill said the programme is so secretive that senior officials in the Obama administration are likely to be unaware of its existence.

The article has also revealed that Blackwater operatives have participated in ground operations with Pakistani forces under a subcontract with a local security firm called Kestral. The operations have included house raids and border interdictions in north-west Pakistan. Citing military intelligence sources, Scahill says the programme began with an agreement between the US and Pakistani authorities

The report comes days after Azam Tariq, a spokesman of the Tehrik-e-Taliban, denied responsibility for at least two recent bombings inside Pakistan. In a video statement posted on the internet, Tariq said that the recent explosions were the handiwork of Blackwater and Pakistan's spy agencies to malign the image of the outlawed group.

Xe has denied having any contracts in Pakistan.

UN-backed forces failing in DR Congo

A United Nations-backed drive by the Democratic Republic of Congo's army has failed to defeat Rwandan rebels in Eastern Congo who earn millions of dollars from gold smuggling, according to a leaked UN report. The report states that the UN-backed offensive against the mainly Hutu militia, the FDLR, has displaced thousands of people and has allowed another force, a former Rwandan-backed Tutsi-led rebel group, the CNDP, now incorporated into the Congolese army, to take over the region's mines. UN investigators claim that military operations have exacerbated the humanitarian crisis and resulted in the expansion of CNDP military influence in the region. UN peacekeepers last month suspended working alongside one army unit, under the command of CNDP rebels, that was accused of killing 62 civilians in March.

The report also says mineral resources are being plundered with impunity and there has been a new surge of rapes and killings. The findings will be discussed by the UN Security Council on Wednesday.

The US rejects landmine ban treaty

The US administration has rejected a global treaty banning the use of landmines. The US state department announced the decision on Tuesday, adding that a policy review had found the US could not meet its ‘national defence needs’ without landmines. The decision comes a week before a review conference in Colombia on the 10-year-old Mine Ban Treaty, credited with the reduction of landmine casualties around the world. The treaty bans the use, stockpiling, production or transfer of antipersonnel mines. It has been endorsed by 156 countries, but these do not include the United States, Russia, China and India.

US Senator Patrick Leahy, a proponent of the treaty, criticised the state department's policy review as ‘cursory and half-hearted’, adding that the issue was a ‘lost opportunity for the United States to show leadership.’ Landmines have caused over 5,000 casualties in the last year alone, according to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.

Khmer Rouge prison chief expresses remorse

In his final appeal to his war crimes tribunal, the Khmer Rouge's top jailer, Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, expressed 'excruciating remorse' and apologised for his role in the torture and murder of thousands of Cambodians. Addressing the court in closing arguments on Wednesday, the prison boss admitted his responsibility for the loss of at least 12,380 lives and asked to be allowed to meet his victims' families to apologise in person. Duch explained that his role as head of Tuol Sleng prison, also known as S-21, was to 'smash' people presumed disloyal to the Khmer Rouge movement. False confessions, beatings and torture were common place and Duch has admitted that his victims were 'those people [who] were the innocent, the clean, the very honest.'

Prosecutors have asked that the 67-year old executioner be jailed for forty years for his crimes. He is expected to be sentenced next year. Duch is the first Khmer Rouge cadre to face trial. Four more senior leaders are in jail awaiting trial, though there are concerns that they may not live long enough to face a courtroom in 2011.

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