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Pakistan court says it will charge Gilani for contempt

A judge says there are grounds to proceed against the prime minister despite the government's insistence that President Asif Ali Zardari has immunity from prosecution while he is head of state.

From left, ruling party leaders Qamar Zaman Kaira and Nayyar Bukhari with Aitzaz Ahsan, the lawyer of the Pakistani premier, Yousuf Raza Gilani, outside the Supreme Court in Islamabad yesterday.
From left, ruling party leaders Qamar Zaman Kaira and Nayyar Bukhari with Aitzaz Ahsan, the lawyer of the Pakistani premier, Yousuf Raza Gilani, outside the Supreme Court in Islamabad yesterday.

ISLAMABAD // Pakistan’s top court said yesterday it will charge the prime minister for refusing its order to reopen a graft case against the country’s president, a move that could topple the premier and his troubled government.

It may even force the president, Asif Ali Zardari, from office and spark a return to military rule – at least temporarily – in a country that the army has ruled for half its existence since it was carved out of British India in 1947.

The Supreme Court’s ruling that it will charge prime minister Yusuf Raza Gilani worsens Pakistan’s fragile political situation while the United States is struggling to rebuild its relationship with the nation, regarded as a linchpin in stabilising Afghanistan.

If convicted, Mr Gilani faces up to six months in jail and disqualification from office as a convicted criminal.

Mr Gilani told parliament yesterday that he respects the court and will honour its order that he appear before it on February 13.

The Supreme Court, headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, has long been pressing Mr Gilani’s government to ask Swiss authorities to reopen a money-laundering case against Mr Zardari dating back to the 1990s.

Mr Gilani last month appeared before the court to explain Mr Zardaris’s position grants him constitutional immunity and he can therefore not reopen graft cases in Switzerland or Pakistan. Mr Zardari had also been granted separate immunity by the government of Pervez Musharraf.

But the court ordered Mr Gilani to again appear before it on February 13 “for the framing of contempt charges” after his lawyer, Aitzaz Ahsan, failed to convince the court that the constitution provides Mr Zardari with full immunity.

In early January, the judges threatened to hold Mr Gilani in contempt if he did not ask the Swiss to act, and ordered him to make a rare appearance before the court to plead his case.

Mr Gilani struck a conciliatory tone before the judges on January 19, and Mr Ahsan agreed to argue the issue of the president’s immunity when the hearing resumed.

But Mr Ahsan appeared to do a U-turn, refusing to specifically address the issue of presidential immunity. Instead, he simply argued that Mr Gilani should not be held in contempt because his lawyers had advised him he did not have to send the request tto Switzerland.

The judges did not accept that, and after five hours of debate, said Mr Gilani would be charged.

Mr Ahsan said he would advise Mr Gilani to appeal before February 13, something that could draw out the proceedings further.

“It was my wish that there confrontation between institutions of the state should be avoided, but now the situation is looking tense,” Mr Ahsan told reporters outside the court.

The decision escalates a long-running dispute between the weak civilian government and the judiciary, which is an ally of the military.

Mr Ahsan said it was “unfortunate” that the court had decided to proceed against a civilian prime minister but had failed to prosecute generals.

He cited former military ruler Pervez Musharraf who had sacked Justice Chaudhry and dozens of other senior judges when he imposed emergency rule in 2007. Mr Musharraf resigned in 2008 and the judges were later restored by Mr Zardari, though reluctantly, in 2009.

But Mr Musharraf was never formally indicted for any wrongdoing and has only drawn the court’s ire for failing to answer questions about the assassination of former prime minister Beazair Bhutto - Mr Zardaris wife.

The letter to the Swiss is not the only issue aggravating relations between the court and the government. The court also has ordered an inquiry into a memo sent to the United States, allegedly at Mr Zardari’s behest, seeking help to prevent a possible coup after American forces killed Osama bin Laden.

The controversy seems to have eased after the author of the memo, Manoor Ijaz, an American businessman of Pakistani origin, refused to travel to Pakistan to testify before a judicial inquiry commission.

Mr Ijaz alleged that he had written the memo on the instructions of Mr Zardari’s close aide and Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, who resigned in November.

Last month, speculation about a military coup gripped Pakistan after Mr Gilani said he was worried the military was planning to oust him. When Mr Zardari suddenly went to Dubai in December, Pakistanis wondered if he were fleeing the country under pressure from the army.

The army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, has ruled out the possibility of a coup, but analysts warned that tensions between state institutions – government, army and judiciary – persist. “The political instability and uncertainty are building up and there are risks of confrontation of institutions if such a situation persisted,” the political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi said.

The Swiss graft case against Mr Zardari relates to kickbacks that he and his late wife, the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, allegedly received from Swiss companies when Bhutto was in power.

They were found guilty in absentia in a Swiss court in 2003. Mr Zardari appealed, but Swiss prosecutors ended up dropping the case after the Pakistani parliament passed a bill giving the president and others immunity from old corruption cases that many agreed were politically motivated.

The Pakistani Supreme Court ruled the immunity bill unconstitutional in 2009, triggering the process that is playing out now.

Relations between Islamabad and the US, a vital donor, are at a low ebb after US aircraft killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on the Afghan border in November, prompting Pakistan to close its border to US and Nato supplies heading for Afghanistan.

The government says it is re-evaluating its relationship with the US as a result, and is facing domestic pressure not to reopen the supply lines.

Washington wants to rebuild ties with Pakistan because it needs the help of Pakistan’s army in pushing the Taliban to make peace with the Afghan government. That would enable Washington to withdraw its troops with less concern that a civil war would break out.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by the Associated Press