Pakistani lawmakers' citizenship under scrutiny

By Nahal Toosi

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Oct. 6 2012 2:20 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012 file photo, Pakistani interior minister Rehman Malik waves as he leaves the Supreme court in Islamabad, Pakistan. The court in recent months has targeted Pakistan’s interior minister, Rehman Malik, on the citizenship issue. Malik resigned his Senate seat, renounced his British citizenship and won his seat back in a special election, but the court is still looking at prosecuting him for allegedly not revealing his full status when he first held the seat.

B.K. Bangash, File, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's Supreme Court is demanding the nation's lawmakers disclose whether they are also citizens of other countries, a status that could cost them their seats. Already, around a dozen legislators on the federal and provincial levels have been pushed out, and that might be just the beginning.

The developments suggest institutional power struggles are deepening in Pakistan ahead of an election season that some say could produce an even weaker government than the one in charge now. The dispute also adds to political instability in a nation the United States considers a crucial, though unreliable, ally in the battle against Islamist extremists as it winds down the war effort in Afghanistan.

"The judiciary is using all possible means to stretch its power," said Hasan Askari-Rizvi, a Pakistani political analyst. "This is going to be a serious issue, and it is quite possible that different political parties will get together to frame a law through parliament to save their skin."

Experts agree that the law forbids Pakistanis who hold other nationalities from holding elected office. Nonetheless, amid all of Pakistan's other problems, the laws were largely ignored for years.

During the 1990s and 2000s, when there was a military coup and other political turbulence, many in Pakistan's political elite left for Britain, Australia, the United States and other countries, where some obtained citizenship. The return of civilian rule in 2008 drew many of them back to Pakistan, eager to win elected posts.

The government, led by the Pakistan People's Party of President Asif Ali Zardari, has been in a power struggle with the military ever since it took office nearly five years ago. In recent months, the Supreme Court, too, has emerged as a forceful player, using various legal tools to pursue politicians and, in some cases, the military.

Among the first to be targeted on the nationality issue was Farahnaz Ispahani, a member of parliament and wife of the former Pakistani ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani. He resigned last year after becoming a target of the high court in a separate affair.

Ispahani, who also holds American citizenship, called the decision to strip her of her seat earlier this year political. "Once again, unelected individuals are trying to overturn the result of elections," she said in an email to The Associated Press. Supreme Court justices in Pakistan are appointed following vetting by multiple bodies.

In recent months the court has also targeted Pakistan's interior minister, Rehman Malik. He resigned his spot in the Senate, renounced his British citizenship and then recaptured the seat, but the court is still looking at prosecuting him on suspicion of not revealing his full status when he first won the seat.

Overall, around a dozen lawmakers have been disqualified and face criminal action on charges such as giving false statements, said Syed Sher Afgan, a senior official with Pakistan's Election Commission.

At the direction of the court, the commission has sent requests seeking declarations of citizenship from more than 1,100 federal and provincial lawmakers. Election officials had hoped to get a sense later this month about how many lawmakers were ineligible, but this week it emerged that some legislative bodies asked to obtain the declarations from members are resisting the request.

Opinions among lawmakers are divided about the principle of letting people with other nationalities run for office, and consensus on what to do about the existing law may be tough to achieve. A government attempt to change the law to allow foreign citizenship-holders to contest office has stalled.

Supporters of the court's actions question the loyalty of Pakistanis with other passports, asking whether they can truly represent the people in this country, where the majority live in poverty and have little chance to travel abroad. Others insist that Pakistanis with foreign ties often retain strong bonds to their homeland and can offer resources and expertise the country needs.

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