ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - In a national scandal that has evoked outrage as well as laughter, dozens of Pakistani Parliament members have been accused in recent months of possessing fraudulent university degrees.
In one case, a member was disqualified by the Supreme Court for holding a fraudulent master's degree in Islamic studies. In a hearing, the man could not name the first two chapters of the Koran, the newspaper Dawn reported. Another report said a member claimed to have obtained a master's degree 14 years before earning his bachelor's.
Politicians have shown remarkable chutzpah in rejecting the charges of dishonesty over meeting a parliamentary requirement of a bachelor's degree.
"A degree is a degree," said Nawab Aslam Raisani, the chief minister of Baluchistan Province and an ally of President Asif Ali Zardari. "Whether fake or genuine, it's a degree. It makes no difference."
The public outcry over the faked credentials is somewhat startling, given that political leaders here have dodged accountability for rampant corruption and other serious violations of the law. Further, the education requirement was abolished in 2008.
But the news media have seized on the issue, pressing the case that politicians who did get fake degrees or otherwise misrepresented their educational achievements while the requirement was in force could be tried for fraud or forgery.
The nation's largest newspaper, Jang, ran front-page articles five days in a row, while "Capital Talk," its most popular television talk show, featured the topic twice this week.
The genesis of concerns about fake degrees dates from 2008, when doubts surfaced about the authenticity of Mr. Zardari's bachelor's degree during his successful run for president. In the president's official biography, he claims to have attended a college in Britain, but its existence has never been verified.
But the questions about credentials only spread to more of the government. Courts are now hearing 30 cases, brought by defeated politicians who accuse their rivals of fraud.
Last month, the Supreme Court and the National Assembly in Parliament ordered a government agency charged with verifying the credibility of university degrees - usually for prospective employers - to check those claimed by all national and provincial Parliament members.
The agency, the Higher Education Commission, has completed its investigation in only 183 out of 1,170 cases, finding 37 violators, whom it has not named. In the unfinished cases, the commission said, it has received insufficient documentation from universities and is awaiting more evidence. Some analysts suspect such delays are an attempt to stall the process.
The cases have become so delicate that the commission has warned staff members not to leak names of any violators to reporters. Such a precaution is a rarity in press-happy Pakistan.
The head of the commission, Javed Leghari, said the next move was to bring the cases against legislators to the district courts. He said he was not sure when he would have enough evidence to hand all the cases to the courts; he referred such questions to the Election Commission, which did not answer its telephone on Friday afternoon.
If found guilty of falsely representing their educational credentials, politicians could receive up to three years in jail and be disqualified from contesting elections for a decade, Mr. Leghari said.
In a move that many here interpreted as pressure on the commission to halt its investigations, Mr. Leghari's brother was arrested Tuesday on charges of corruption.
Education has never topped the priority list among Pakistani politicians. The annual budget devotes about 2 percent to education, the lowest rate even among other developing nations in South Asia.
Even the federal minister of education, Sardar Aseff Ahmed Ali, played down the seriousness of falsified degrees, saying that "public representatives should not be sent back home merely on the basis of this small mistake."
The situation has pitted the politicians against the press, which continues to report abuse allegations with politically charged tenacity. Media critics say that journalists have reported the issue as a proxy war of their own, giving more prominence to certain individuals than to others. Most news outlets, they say, have failed to touch a larger issue: the Election Commission's failure to monitor these abuses over the years.
The besieged politicians have started counterattacks.
On July 9, the Punjab Assembly unanimously passed a resolution condemning the news media for "irresponsible propaganda" and demanding that they abstain from "insulting" reports.
But the resolution set off waves of protests by journalists across the country and intensified coverage. The Assembly rescinded the resolution four days later, passing another that honored the news media for their role in promoting democracy.
Ahmad Zaidi contributed reporting.