x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Lawyer for Pakistan PM says there is no harm in reopening graft case

Comments may be a way out of Yusuf Raza Gilani's court crisis.

ISLAMABAD // A lawyer for Pakistan's prime minister said yesterday there would be no harm in the government's asking Swiss authorities to reopen an old corruption case against the country's president, because he enjoys immunity from prosecution.

The comments by Aitzaz Ahsan might suggest a way out of a legal crisis that could force the prime minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani, from office. The mounting political pressures threaten to bring down the country's beleaguered government, which is under a combined assault from the Supreme Court and the powerful army.

Mr Gilani is scheduled to make a rare appearance today before the Supreme Court, which has initiated contempt proceedings against him for failing to write a letter to Swiss authorities asking them to reopen the corruption case against his ally, President Asif Ali Zardari.

The government has long refused to write the letter, arguing that Mr Zardari enjoys immunity from prosecution while in office. Mr Ahsan's comments indicate Mr Gilani may reverse that stance to avoid being held in contempt of court, while using the same legal argument to avoid prosecution. If he were held in contempt he could face a maximum of five years in prison and be disqualified from holding public office.

"There is no harm in writing a letter to the Swiss authorities," said Mr Ahsan. "The president has complete immunity against criminal procedures in courts."

Reopening the case would expose Mr Zardari to prosecution once he leaves office. It would also come at a serious political cost, since the president has said he would never send the letter to Swiss authorities because it would dishonour his late wife, the former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, who was also named in the case.

Mr Zardari and Ms Bhutto were found guilty in absentia in a Swiss court in 2003 of laundering millions of dollars in bribes from Swiss companies when they were in government.

They appealed, and Swiss authorities abandoned the case in 2008 at the request of the Pakistani government. The case was among thousands dropped as a result of an amnesty that allowed Ms Bhutto to return from exile and run for election in 2008. She was assassinated in 2007 during the campaign.

The Supreme Court declared the amnesty unconstitutional in 2009, leaving those covered by it vulnerable to prosecution.

The government is also under pressure from the army over an unsigned memo sent last year to Washington asking for US help in preventing a coup in the aftermath of the American raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

The army was outraged by the memo, which was allegedly sent by the government, and pushed the Supreme Court to set up a commission to investigate.

The government has denied any connection to the memo and opposed the commission, saying the matter was already being probed by the parliament.