ISLAMABAD // Pakistan's Supreme Court yesterday charged Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani with contempt of court, worsening a political crisis that could result in his being removed from office.
Mr Gilani was indicted for refusing to reopen a corruption case against the country's president, Asif Ali Zardari. If convicted, Mr Gilani would be disqualified from office and could be jailed for up to six months.
"Do you plead guilty?" Justice Nasir-ul-Mulk, the head of the seven-judge panel, asked Mr Gilani after reading the two-page charge sheet that accused him of "wilfully disobeying" the court's orders.
"No," responded Mr Gilani, who became the first Pakistani prime minister to be indicted.
Mr Gilani's government has long maintained that it would not write a letter to the Swiss authorities, as ordered by the court, to reopen a money-laundering case against Mr Zardari because of constitutional immunity granted to the president.
The graft case dates to the 1990s when Mr Zardari and his wife, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who was killed in a gun and bomb attack in 2007, were accused of receiving kickbacks from Swiss companies. Government officials say the corruption cases were "politically motivated".
"We will not allow trial of the grave of our Shaheed (martyred) leader Benazir Bhutto," Information Minister Ashiq Awan said after yesterday's court hearing.
The court insists it should decide whether presidential immunity is applicable in this case.
The indictment of Mr Gilani escalated a tug of war between the weak civilian government and an assertive judiciary, which is widely believed to be allied with the powerful military.
The military is at odds with Mr Zardari over an unsigned memo sent in May to the United States seeking Washington's help to stave off a possible military-led coup in Pakistan. The memo was sent after US special forces killed Osama bin Laden in a raid in Pakistan that embarrassed the army. Mr Zardari has denied any connection with the memo.
The Supreme Court is investigating the memo case.
Should Mr Gilani be convicted, the ruling coalition led by Mr Zardari's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) is likely to stay in power as it enjoys comfortable majority in the parliament and could elect a new prime minister.
"The next prime minister will be from the People's Party if Mr. Gilani is convicted," Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, a senior coalition leader told reporters yesterday.
Pakistani newspapers have speculated that the religious affairs minister, Khursheed Shah, a close aide to Mr Zardari, would be the next prime minister if Mr Gilani is convicted.
Mr Gilani's trial is expected to start on February 22 when the prosecution will present its case.
Analysts say whatever the outcome of the court cases, the PPP government would try to survive until at least June when it would announce national budget that is likely to allocate huge funds for public development in a bid its chances in next general elections in 2013.
"The government will try to drag this (standoff with judiciary) for few more weeks so that the talk of dates for general election starts. In such a situation, the ouster of Gilani will become irrelevant," said Talat Masood, a retired general-turned analyst. "Even if Gilani is ousted it does not mean fall of the government or the democratic process….The government is taking very calculated risk."