ISLAMABAD: A Pakistani court on Monday (Oct 5) officially charged former President Asif Ali Zardari in two corruption cases, escalating the legal challenges facing the now leading opposition lawmaker and widower of assassinated former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
The development came as Zardari’s party and a key anti-government ally were preparing for a massive rally against Prime Minister Imran Khan later this month. Zardari was released on bail on medical grounds last December, six months after his arrest.
Zardari became president in 2008, after Pakistan’s former military dictator Pervez Musharraf was forced to resign. Bhutto served twice as a prime minister before she was killed by the Taliban in a bomb and gun attack in 2007. Zardari served as Pakistan’s president until 2013.
During Monday’s court appearance in the capital, Islamabad, Zardari pleaded not guilty to money laundering and corruption charges. He later told reporters he was not surprised by the indictment and that charges are something he routinely faces whenever he is in the opposition.
A member of parliament, Zardari is accused of having dozens of bogus bank accounts, a charge he denies, saying he has been politically victimised by Khan’s government.
Since coming to power, Khan has vowed to make good on his election campaign promise to eliminate corruption.
The government says the corruption cases against Zadari began during ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s tenure.
Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Parry and Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League party have called for a rally in the southwestern city of Quetta on Oct 18. During his rule, Sharif was targeted by similar mass protests by Khan.
Last week, Sharif – speaking from his exile in London – accused Pakistan’s powerful military of rigging the 2018 election that brought Khan to power. Khan has dismissed the allegations as baseless.
The 70-year-old Sharif, who served three times as prime minister, was ousted in 2017 over corruption allegations. Khan, a world famous former cricket player, came to power in 2018.
Sharif was released on bail last year for four weeks, to seek medical treatment abroad and has been in London since November.
Last month, a court issued arrest warrants for Sharif, who was previously sentenced to seven years in prison on corruption and money laundering charges stemming from disclosures in the Panama Papers.
Meanwhile, Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League party said Monday that police initiated a treason case against Sharif and several other politicians, including a former prime minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, and Raja Farooq Haider, who is prime minister in Pakistan-held Kashmir, over Sharif’s latest remarks about the military.
Anyone charged for treason can be sentenced to death if the court finds him or her guilty under Pakistani laws.