Pakistan was headed for a political crisis late Wednesday night with uncertainty surrounding Asif Ali Zardari continuing as president after the Supreme Court scrapped an Ordinance under which he and several other prominent politicians had been granted immunity from prosecution in corruption cases.
The court also directed authorities to reopen a slew of corruption cases.
In a major setback to Zardari, the country's top court declared a controversial amnesty that had granted the President immunity against corruption charges as illegal, a ruling that could pave the way for challenges to his shaky rule.
By setting aside the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) which repealed all corruption cases against Zardari, the court decision apparently also left thousands of other officials, including Cabinet ministers loyal to Zardari, facing reopened corruption and other criminal cases.
The court said all corruption cases under NRO will be revived and that all orders and acquittals under the Ordinance will also be not valid.
A 17-judge bench of the apex court headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, which was hearing challenges to the NRO that granted amnesty to Zardari and over 8,000 other people, declared the law was "unconstitutional ab initio" and null and void.
Presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar, who was present in the apex court, told reporters that the ruling posed "no threat to the President."
The presidency and the (ruling) Pakistan People's Party respect courts and courts' verdicts, he said, adding "this (ruling) does not affect the President of Pakistan".
Zardari's close aide Interior Minister Rehman Malik is among those whose convictions were quashed under the law.
Musharraf issued the NRO in October 2007 as part of a deal brokered by the US and Britain to facilitate the return from self exile of Bhutto and Zardari.
The president and several close aides are among the over 8,000 people who benefited from the law, which expired last month after the government was unable to get it endorsed by parliament within a deadline set by the apex court.
Asked about the reopening of cases against Zardari, Babar said, "the law will take its own course and we will see how things proceed further".
"We believe that under Article 248(2) of the constitution, no criminal case can be instituted or continued against the President in any court of law whatsoever," he added.
In a brief order issued shortly after 10 pm, the bench all cases withdrawn under the NRO would be reopened and convictions quashed under the law would stand restored.
The apex court also declared as unconstitutional letters written to Swiss authorities during the regime of former military Pervez Musharraf to close corruption cases against Zardari and his slain wife, former premier Benazir Bhutto.
It directed authorities to reopen these cases. In its unanimous order, the bench expressed displeasure at the lack of cooperation from the government in hearing the petitions against the NRO and directed authorities to replace the team of prosecutors of the National Accountability Bureau, an anti-corruption watchdog.
The bench also announced that monitoring committees would be constituted by the chief justice to supervise the prosecution of corruption cases in and outside Pakistan.