Pakistani defence minister barred from foreign visit


Islamabad : Pakistani immigration staff prevented the country’s defence minister from taking a plane to China because his name was on a list of people facing a travel ban after an amnesty law was scrapped, news reports said Friday.

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Ahmed Mukhtar was stopped at the Islamabad airport late Thursday, one day after Pakistan’s Supreme Court voided an amnesty protecting more than 8,000 people from corruption charges and ordered authorities to resume proceedings against the accused, the Dawn newspaper reported.

President Asif Ali Zardari was among the beneficiaries of the amnesty, known as the National Reconciliation Ordinance, but he enjoys a constitutional immunity from prosecution.

Zardari is under pressure from his political opponents and commentators to resign on moral grounds; however, there were no immediate signs of his stepping-down.

Dawn said Friday that Mukhtar was to leave with Pakistan’s naval chief, Admiral Noman Bashir, for China on a three-day scheduled visit to take delivery of a frigate. Bashir proceeded as planned.

The minister told the private Geo news channel that his name was placed on the so-called Exit Control List in connection with a corruption investigation that has been pending against him for the past 12 years. He denied the graft allegations and vowed to defend himself.

The name of Interior Minister Rehman Malik was also included on the list of 247 people who have been banned from leaving the country.

Action against Mukhtar was followed by rumours about a possible coup in Pakistan. They came when Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani, in an interview with CNN commented on the possibility of a takeover by saying: “I hope not.”

Zardari spokesman Farhatullah Babar rubbished the buzz about a coup.

During its 62 years of existence, Pakistan has seen several military takeovers with the latest staged in 1999 by former army chief Pervez Musharraf, who remained in power until August 2008.

The National Reconciliation Ordinance was issued by Musharraf under a power-sharing deal with Zardari’s late wife, Benazir Bhutto. The move was encouraged by the US and Britain.

Bhutto ended a self-imposed exile in 2007 to run in parliamentary polls but was assassinated weeks after returning in Pakistan. Zardari led her party to victory in February 2008 elections and later became president when Musharraf left office.

Resumption of corruption cases against Zardari, some key ministers and hundreds of top bureaucrats after the landmark court ruling Wednesday has pushed Pakistan into a fresh political upheaval.

The potential instability comes as Western countries are pressuring the government in Islamabad to focus on the Islamist insurgency centred in Pakistan’s tribal badlands near the Afghan border.

Pakistan is already engaged in multiple offensives against Al Qaeda and Taliban militants, who have responded with a deadly wave of terrorist strikes that have killed more than 500 people in the past two months.