Pakistan's Supreme Court has struck down an amnesty protecting the president and senior ministers from corruption charges, raising questions about the survival of the US-backed civilian government.
While President Asif Ali Zardari is immune from prosecution while in office, Wednesday's ruling heaps pressure on his administration which is a key partner of the United States in the fight against Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants.
The Supreme Court hearing has churned up details of Zardari's alleged personal fortune, and the president already faces plummeting public approval ratings and fractious relations with the powerful military.
|Pakistani lawyers shout slogans in support of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry outside the Supreme Court in Islamabad|
Interior Minister Rehman Malikand Defence Minister Ahmed Mukhtar were among more than 30 politicians and 8,000 people who had benefitted from the original amnesty contained in the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO).
"(The) promulgation of the NRO seems to be against the national interest... thus it violates various provisions of the constitution," said the ruling read out by Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry.
The NRO was passed in October 2007 by then-president Pervez Musharraf, under international pressure to hold democratic elections and end about eight years of military rule.
It quashed charges against a number of politicians including Zardari and his wife and ex-prime minister Benazir Bhutto -- who was assassinated two months later -- to allow them to stand for office.
Zardari's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) went on to win elections in 2008, restoring civilian rule, but the NRO expired at the end of last month and the PPP did not have enough support to renew the ordinance in parliament.
The amnesty covered 3,478 cases ranging from murder, embezzlement, abuse of power and write-offs of bank loans worth millions of dollars.
The Supreme Court ruling Wednesday said that all cases suspended under the NRO would now revert back to their status as of October 5, 2007 -- meaning they will be automatically reopened.
Lawyers and civil rights activists had challenged the NRO on the grounds that it encouraged corruption and allowed wrongdoers to escape justice.
Zardari's fate will now hinge on what legal action is taken next, as court cases against his allies could implicate him and call into question his eligibility for the presidency.
A number of cases were also pending against him when the NRO was passed.
"Cases will be re-initiated and it is possible that some people may file petitions challenging the constitutional immunity being enjoyed by President Zardari," said Salman Raja, a senior lawyer.
Zardari spent several years in jail for corruption and is still referred to as "Mr Ten Percent" because of his reputation for taking kickbacks on deals.
The opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N party has recently upped calls for him to give up powers to dissolve parliament and sack the prime minister.
Any political fracas will likely unnerve Islamabad's Western allies, who want stability to allow Pakistan to focus on quashing Islamist extremism.
Pakistan is ranked the 40th most corrupt country out of 180 monitored by global watchdog Transparency International, and many governments have fallen or been ousted by the military over accusations of graft.