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Pakistan: Judicial update. Fasih Bokhari, chief of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), told the Supreme Court during a hearing on 17 January that the initial investigation into the corruption case against Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf and more than a dozen others was flawed and he needed more time to determine whether the premier should be arrested.

The investigating officers "were not able to bring incriminating evidence but relied on oral statements which are not warranted in the court of law," said Bokhari.

Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry questioned why the anti-corruption chief needed more time since the case against the prime minister has been pending for about a year. He ordered Bokhari to bring the case files back to the judges later in the day so they can determine whether there is incriminating evidence.

Comment: One Supreme Court justice suggested that the chief of the NAB was acting as the defense attorney for the prime minister instead of upholding the law. Nevertheless, the Court granted the NAB more time.

Exchanges of this type between law enforcers and prosecutors -- who work essentially for the executive -- and the Supreme Court are a standard feature of the Pakistani justice system. The chief of the NAB is a Zardari appointee.

The implication is that the prime minister most likely will not be arrested any time soon. For one thing, it is not clear that he can be sued, much less prosecuted, because of immunity that attaches to a serving prime minister. On the other hand, the Court's involvement ensures that his case and that of his cohorts will get another look by the NAB prosecutors and investigators.

Chief Justice Chaudhry has a longstanding grudge against President Zardari over past mistreatment. However, the Chief Justice indicated in the case that forced former Prime Minister Gilani to resign that he is not trying to destabilize the political system, but is seeking to establish the principle that no one is above the law.

The case involves a private law suit alleging that Ashraf and others took large kickbacks during his tenure as minister of water and power that were related to the construction of private power stations built to provide electricity to energy-starved Pakistan. The prime minister has denied the allegations.

Internal political update. Tension eased in Islamabad after Pakistani cleric Tahrir ul Qadri late Thursday called off a mass protest in Islamabad, pursuant to an agreement with the government. The government agreed to dissolve the National Assembly by 16 March and set new elections within 90 days of the dissolution.

Comment: This averts a major political crisis because Qadri and his followers were insisting on the dissolution of parliament over corruption charges and its replacement by a military-backed interim government. With luck, this deal will help stabilize political conditions.

The run-up to the elections should now become the focus of political energy. This would be the first time an elected civilian government completed a normal five-year term under the provisions of the constitution.

The Qadri protest movement surged so fast that its ultimate purpose, beyond the demagoguery, remains obscure. Likewise his benefactors are not known.

Some Pakistani political commentators suspect that Qadri might have been testing the political reaction to the possibility of a more overt military role in government. Alternatively, he might have been the spokesman for interests who want to guarantee the government dissolved as prescribed.

Whatever the case, he and his benefactors sent a warning to the elected government because he and his interim government generated significant support. That might have been the message.

Algeria: The state news agency reported earlier during this Watch that the military operation to free hostages at a desert gas plant is over. The agency reported Algerian forces rescued 600 Algerians and an unknown number of foreigners. News services reported up to 34 dead hostages, but no outlet has reported who killed them.

Comment: The Algerians executed the operation without outside coordination, which has generated considerable back pressure. As yet the government has provided no details of its execution or accounted for the dead and wounded. News service accounts are inconsistent, when they are not contradictory.

To recap the key points of a Feedback note from a Brilliant and extremely well-informed Reader, this was a very odd attack. The location is outside the normal operating areas of al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The target also was unusual. Most of the time the terrorists attack gendarmerie barracks and outposts along the coast east of Algiers.

Finally, the group is jihadist, but it splintered from AQIM. Its leader, Belmokhtar, fought in Afghanistan, but is known locally as a smuggler, of cigarettes. His group has never been reported to harbor suicidal tendencies. His men are not suicide bombers.

No news service has reported destruction of the plant, interruption of its production or an attempt by the attackers to flee with some hostages so as to negotiate ransoms. Initial reports indicated there were 20 attackers. The state news agency reported variously 11 or 14 of them were killed, making this a high cost operation, even for terrorist.

The information in the public domain suggests this operation and its tactics hold no precedent of victory for others to follow. Moreover, the information raises suspicions that Belmokhtar tried to exploit the crisis in Mali for his own purposes, not necessarily as an act of solidarity with the terrorists in Mali.

Algeria's swift and harsh reaction is consistent with Algerian tactics used when they defeated the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) rebellion between 1991 and 2002.

Mali: The fighting continues without major breakthroughs. Contrary to earlier reports, government and French forces have not captured Diabaly. Residents reported the Islamists have mingled among the population, taking over homes and using the occupants in effect as human shields.

Troop contingents from Nigeria and Togo began to arrive along with more French forces.

The most ominous development on 17 January was the sighting of Islamists near the town of Banamba, which has no garrison and is located about 90 miles from Bamako. The Islamists did not enter the town. The government later sent a contingent of 100 Malian soldiers to defend Banamba, or act as a trip wire for an attack.

Comment: The Islamists might have been performing reconnaissance. They also probably were searching for fuel and supplies.

Banamba is the closest they have come to Bamako. The map suggests they might be in a position to flank pro-government forces in a wide arc to the west in order to attack the capital.

Almost a week into the French intervention, the Islamists seem to know the terrain well and retain the initiative on the ground.

Two key questions are how much petrol and other supplies have the terrorists captured and how much is left in areas beyond government control?

End of NightWatch ###

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