ISLAMABAD // Pakistan's Supreme Court yesterday gave the prime minister two weeks to prove he does not have the powers to implement its orders to reopen graft investigations against the president, or effectively face dismissal.
The deadline comes as the prime minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani, and his increasingly weak and unpopular government are struggling to survive, under pressure from the court and the army - the most powerful institutions in the country.
This showdown and another involving an alleged government memo seeking US help against a possible coup threaten to bring down the administration and throw Pakistan, a strategic US partner in stabilising Afghanistan and fighting growing militancy in the region, into further turmoil.
Mr Gilani made a rare appearance in court, driving himself to yesterday's hearing, to argue he is not in contempt and cannot reopen corruption cases in Pakistan or Switzerland because President Asif Ali Zardari's position guarantees him immunity from prosecution.
The court is threatening Mr Gilani with contempt charges if he fails to implement its orders, or convince the justices that he cannot. A conviction would make him ineligible for office.
"The government has walked into a trap and is forced to discuss an issue [of immunity] in the court which it has been avoiding so far," Imtiaz Gul, executive director of the Centre for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad, said.
Mr Gilani told the court in Islamabad yesterday that Mr Zardari "has complete immunity inside and outside the country".
He said,"I have consulted friends and legal experts and they agreed that the cases [against Mr Zardari] cannot be reopened because he enjoyed presidential immunity. It will send a wrong message if we proceed against a president who was elected with two-thirds majority."
Mr Zardari, his late wife Benazir Bhutto and thousands of others were also granted an amnesty from graft allegations by the former president Pervez Musharraf to allow Ms Bhutto to return from self-imposed exile in 2007 to campaign for elections.
Ms Bhutto, assassinated within weeks of her return, and Mr Zardari were accused of corruption in cases in Pakistan and Switzerland.
The court has asked Mr Gilani to prove that any constitutional immunity applies for cases before Mr Zardari was elected president in 2008.
Last week, the court said it could take action leading to the possible dismissal of Mr Gilani and Mr Zardari if the prime minister did not implement a 2009 court ruling overturning the amnesty granted by Mr Musharraf.
The issue now is whether Mr Zardari has separate immunity under the constitution as president.
The court had ordered Mr Gilani write to Swiss authorities asking them to reopen a money-laundering case against Mr Zardari.
"The fate of both Gilani and Zardari now seem to have been linked to this case because if the court ... [said] that Zardari does not enjoy immunity, then the government will be left with no other option but to reopen cases," Imtiaz Gul, executive director of Centre for Research and Security Studies, said. "If Gilani still refused to write the letter, then he can be convicted for contempt.
The government's legal advisers had told it the constitution was clear and there was no need to argue its case in court.
Tensions have increased dramatically between the weak civilian government and the military, which has ruled Pakistan for half its 64 years.
Mr Gilani has warned of conspiracies to overthrow his government - a clear reference to the military that prompted the armed forces chief, General Ashraf Kayani, to deny he was plotting a coup.
The Supreme Court is hearing a separate case into allegations Mr Zardari sent a memo to the Obama administration asking for help to avoid a possible coup in the face of the army's anger at the secret US raid that killed Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani military town last year.
Mr Gilani has accused the armed forces chief of illegally lodging a submission with that inquiry without the government's permission.
And he sacked the head of the defence department last week, retired Lieutenant-General Naeem Khalid Lodhi, effectively a military appointee and regarded as close to Gen Kayani.
The government argues the court does not have the authority to investigate the memo scandal, but the army backs the inquiry.
Some analysts say the military and the judiciary could try to use the two Supreme Court cases to force the government to call elections before they are due next year, possibly as early as October.
If the government lasts that long, it would be Pakistan's first to serve a full term.
"Neither the judiciary nor military or opposition want to take responsibility for demolishing the democratic structure," said Talat Masood, a political analyst and retired general. "I think what all of them want is early elections. There is a tension between government, judiciary and army but there is no collision, so far."
As it battles the military and the judiciary, the government is also facing a strengthening political opposition.
Mr Musharraf plans to return from self-exile in Dubai and London this month, despite the threat of arrest for ignoring court orders himself, to contest the elections.
Mr Musharraf, a former armed forces chief who seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999, faces two arrest warrants - one for his failure to appear before a court inquiry into Ms Bhutto's assassination.
The interior minister, Rehman Malik, said this week that Mr Musharraf would be arrested if he returns.
The main opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, has demanded the government immediately resign and call elections. But analysts say this is impossible because the election commission has not yet completed electoral rolls.