ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — As a far-reaching constitutional measure aimed at bolstering democracy was tabled in Pakistan's Parliament Friday, an escalating battle between U.S.-backed President Asif Ali Zardari and the country's chief justice threatens the political stability of a key American ally in the war on Islamic extremism.
Some Pakistanis are now accusing Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who was the hero of Pakistani democrats when he was reinstated a year ago after a protest movement led by lawyers, of pursuing a vendetta against Zardari and trespassing on presidential turf.
"There should be accountability of the executive, but since they (the judiciary) appear to be one-sided, the whole issue of accountability gets diluted," said Asma Jahangir, the head of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent organization. "These are symptoms of political anarchy. The judiciary is destroying itself."
The Obama administration has invested heavily in Zardari's elected government in Islamabad in the belief that democracy is the best way to combat Islamic extremists in Pakistan. Former president George W. Bush supported a military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who was removed following elections in 2008.
Never miss a local story.
Chaudhry, who became a national icon when he stood up to Musharraf in 2007, has clashed openly with Zardari's government on a series of important issues, including the method of appointing judges and the punishment of those who'd enjoyed an amnesty granted to the president and thousands of other politicians and bureaucrats accused of corruption.
Chaudhry's supporters say that the Supreme Court is merely trying to bring officials accused of corruption to justice by implementing a December judgment repealing the amnesty.
Authorities in Switzerland had charged Zardari with laundering millions of dollars through Swiss banks in the 1990s, when his wife, the late Benazir Bhutto, was Pakistan's prime minister. The case was dropped under the amnesty.
Chaudhry hauled senior functionaries before the Supreme Court this week, demanding to know why the government hadn't written Swiss authorities asking that the case against Zardari be re-opened. The attorney general told the court that the law ministry was refusing to co-operate.
A Swiss prosecutor said earlier this week that as a head of state, Zardari enjoys immunity unless the government of Pakistan lifts it.
"If someone (the government) is spitting on the face of the Supreme Court, is it expected to say thank you?" said Athar Minallah, a lawyer who's close to the chief justice. "The Supreme Court is required to implement its judgments."
Government officials had told the court repeatedly that the letter to the Swiss authorities would be sent, but so far it hasn't been. The government also has declined to argue before the court that the president enjoyed immunity, so it was "playing games" with the court, Minallah said.
The constitutional measures, which all parties agreed to after nine months of wrangling, are an attempt to end Pakistan's history of military coups. Politically, the deal also could strengthen Zardari by removing the criticism that he's an uncertain supporter of the constitutional changes.
The proposed 18th Amendment to Pakistan's 1973 constitution would strip the presidency of its powers and turn the position, which was fortified by successive military dictators when they assumed the title, into a ceremonial post.
It also would remove the president's power to dissolve Parliament and transfer other powers to the prime minister, the Parliament and the provinces. The amendment also says that those who suspend the constitution, as some military rulers have, are guilty of high treason.
"This is a bill of hope. This is a bill of people's emancipation," Senator Raza Rabbani, who headed the committee that drafted the package, told Parliament. "This is a bill that ensures fundamental rights. This is a bill that ensures Parliamentary supremacy."
The standoff between the executive and the judiciary intensified Friday when Attorney General Anwar Mansoor quit, saying the government is "defying" the orders of the Supreme Court.
The chief justice this week jailed a Zardari crony, Ahmad Riaz Sheikh, who recently had been appointed a top anti-fraud official despite his early release from jail as a beneficiary of the amnesty that subsequently was struck down.
Washington never backed the movement around Chaudhry, and U.S. officials privately remain skeptical of the chief justice, whom they consider meddlesome and possibly sympathetic to Islamists.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY