Pakistan high court to charge prime minister with contempt

Pakistan’s highest court said on Feb. 2 it would charge Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani with contempt of court for refusing to reopen a corruption case against President Asif Ali Zardari.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani waves upon his arrival at the Supreme Court in Islamabad, Pakistan on Jan. 19.

Pakistan’s Supreme Court decided it will formally try Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on contempt charges following his refusal to implement Supreme Court orders to pursue criminal proceedings against the president.

Mr. Gilani has now been summoned to appear before the court on Feb. 13. The decision by the court reignites fears that the civilian government is under threat following a cooling of tensions between the government and the Army last week, and is seen as further evidence that the country’s popular judiciary is overstepping its authority.

“The Supreme Court has the power to go forward with contempt of court charges,” says political analyst Hasan Askari Rizwi, “but I think it is overstretching its domain, and this will cause greater uncertainty and confusion in our already troubled politics.”

If convicted, the prime minister could face up to six months in jail and disqualification from public office.

In 2008, Pakistan’s government, led by then military ruler Pervez Musharraf, dropped a $12 million money-laundering case in Switzerland against President Asif Ali Zardari that went back as far as 1997, following an amnesty deal that allowed exiled politicians to return to the country. The case in Switzerland collapsed because of lack of evidence.

But the Supreme Court ruled the political amnesty void in 2009, and ordered the government to send a letter to the Swiss government to restart proceedings.

Justice Nasir-ul-Mulk told the court that there were grounds to proceed against Gilani over the government’s refusal to follow a court order to request Swiss authorities to reopen the money laundering case against Mr. Zardari.

The government argues, meanwhile, that as president, Zardari has immunity from prosecution. Gilani’s lawyers argue that he acted in good faith on government officials’ advice by not restarting the request to prosecute the president.

In an impassioned plea before the seven Supreme Court judges present, Gilani’s lawyer, Aitzaz Ahsan, referred to the judiciary’s long history of undermining democratically elected governments while not holding the military to account, and urged them to take a different path.

The lawyer, who is widely respected among Pakistan’s judges for his role in leading a nationwide lawyers’ movement to restore judges fired by former President Musharraf in 2008, said: “Three sitting prime ministers have been prosecuted on contempt charges…[but] no contempt charges have ever been placed on the generals who arrested judges and arrested their children.”

“We have to lower tensions. That is the purpose I serve. I do not wish to serve any client. My client is the court,” he added.

Mr. Ahsan argued that sending a letter to Swiss authorities now would be of no use as the Swiss had closed the case on its merits.

“I want to prevent this court from the embarrassment of writing a letter that will be totally ignored by the Swiss authorities,” he said.

Responding, Justice Asif Saeed Khan Khosa said: “Whether that [Swiss] inquiry now succeeds or not is not our concern. That is the Swiss concern. “Once we’ve passed an order, that is to be acted upon.”

Ahsan later told the Monitor that he may appeal the court’s decision.

The government is also facing another Supreme Court case regarding allegations that it sent a secret memo seeking US help in curtailing the Pakistan Army in the aftermath of the bin Laden raid last year.

Last week, the International Commission of Jurists criticized Pakistan’s Supreme Court for barring Pakistan’s former ambassador the United States, Husain Haqqani (no relation to the Haqqani network), from travelling abroad despite the fact that he had not been charged with a crime.

That ban was subsequently lifted and the case now appears in danger of flopping because its key witness, a US citizen who conveyed the memo to the US government, is refusing to travel to Pakistan.

The potential collapse of that case, coupled with the release of a high-profile video last week showing the prime minister in a conference with Army chiefs, had raised hopes that the government may see through a full term, a first in Pakistan’s 64-year history.

Now, however, the government is once more on the defensive and set for a protracted confrontation with the judiciary.

“Let’s suppose the prime minister is convicted and ultimately disqualified from being a member of parliament,” says Rizwi, the analyst.  “If the coalition remains intact, they will elect a new prime minister who could also refuse to obey the court’s order. If [the government] maintain they have immunity, that confrontation will continue.”

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