Leader could face six months in jail and be banned from office over government reluctance to reopen case against president.
Court starts contempt case against Pakistan PM Gilani
ISLAMABAD // Pakistan's Supreme Court began contempt proceedings yesterday against the country's prime minister, summoning him to explain why he refuses its order to reopen corruption charges against the president.
The court ordered Yusuf Raza Gilani to appear on Thursday to respond to charges of contempt of court.
If Mr Gilani is convicted, he could serve up to six months in prison and be disqualified from holding office.
The top court's decision puts additional pressure on the civilian government already locked in a standoff with the army over an unsigned memo delivered to Washington last year seeking US help to avert a possible coup.
The army was outraged by the memo and pushed the Supreme Court to open an inquiry into the scandal, against the government's wishes.
Some observers believe the court's pressure on the graft case is being orchestrated by the military to put maximum strain on the government.
"The Supreme Court and the government are in an open clash now, and it seems fairly obvious the court is unwilling to back off," said Cyril Almeida, a columnist for Dawn newspaper. "Once the Supreme Court, the army and the political opposition agree the government needs to go sooner rather than later, it seems very difficult for the government to stay on," Mr Almeida said.
Later in the day, Mr Gilani addressed the parliament and said he would appear in court on Thursday.
"There may be difference of opinion ... but no one can derail democracy," he said after the National Assembly passed a resolution declaring complete "confidence" in political leadership and the government's efforts to strengthen democracy.
"We don't want confrontation with any institution," he said.
Fears of a military coup have gripped Pakistan in recent weeks.
The military last week rebuked Mr Gilani for his comments to a Chinese newspaper that the statements submitted by army leadership to the Supreme Court on the memo scandal were "unconstitutional" and illegal".
Mr Gilani also sacked his defence secretary, Naeem Khalid Lodhi, a retired general who was close to the military top brass.
The army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, has ruled out the possibility of a coup, but analysts said the military could use the judiciary, which is also seen as hostile to President Asif Ali Zardari, against the government. Mr Zardari, widower of the assassinated former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, has faced numerous corruption cases.
However, he was given amnesty as part of a deal between Ms Bhutto and the former military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf.
The deal fell apart after Ms Bhutto was killed in 2007.
The Supreme Court overturned the amnesty law in 2009 and ordered Mr Gilani's government to reopen corruption cases against Mr Zardari but it refused to do so on the ground that he enjoyed presidential immunity.
Analysts have said the military is unlikely to stage a coup because it is already fighting a growing Islamist insurgency. However, the government may be forced into calling early elections.
"The government has made up its mind to call elections this year. These could be held in October or even early if the crisis escalated," said a politician from the ruling coalition.
The opposition parties, led by the former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, and the cricketer-turned-politician, Imran Khan, have also increased the pressure on the government to resign and call elections.
Three politicians met Mr Gilani yesterday to try to persuade him to avoid "confrontation" with the institutions.
"We told the prime minister that elections are the only way out of this crisis," Qazi Hussain Ahmed, a senior Islamist politician, said after meeting Mr Gilani.
The court initiated contempt proceedings against Mr Gilani after the government failed to respond to an order outlining a series of punitive options the judges could take if the government did not reopen the case against Mr Zardari.
The Attorney General, Maulvi Anwarul Haq, told the court he had not received instructions from the country's leaders on how to respond to the order.
The court has focused on one corruption investigation taken up by the Swiss government against Mr Zardari that was halted in 2008 when Pakistani prosecutors, acting on the amnesty, told Swiss authorities to drop the case.
* With additional reports from the Associated Press