In landmark trial, Pakistan prime minister charged with contempt

The indictment of Pakistan Prime Minister Gilani has polarized public opinion, with some seeing a victory for rule of law, but others worried about an antidemocratic precedent.

Faisal Mahmood/REUTERS
Pakistan's Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani (C) waves after arriving at the Supreme Court in Islamabad February 13. Pakistan's Supreme Court charged the embattled prime minister with contempt of court on Monday for his refusal to re-open old corruption cases against the head of his political party, President Asif Ali Zardari.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani pleaded not guilty to contempt charges brought against him by the Supreme Court on Monday, in a landmark trial that some see as a step forward for the rule-of-law but others say is a dangerous antidemocratic precedent.

Reading from a strongly worded charge-sheet, Justice Nasir-ul-Mulk said the prime minister had “willfully flouted, disregarded, and disobeyed instructions by this court" by failing to write a letter to Swiss authorities to reopen a money-laundering case against President Asif Ali Zardari. The government argues that, as president, Mr. Zardari enjoys immunity at home and abroad and as such will not write the letter.

It is the first time that a Pakistani prime minister has been indicted on contempt charges. Mr. Gilani faces up to six months in jail and being barred from office if convicted.

The proceedings have polarized public opinion, with supporters of Gilani’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and many independent analysts characterizing Monday’s indictment as a “sad day” for democracy and evidence that the judiciary is overstepping its constitutional bounds.

“For the first time, the PM has been charged. It’s a sad day in the history of Pakistan,” Qamar Zaman Qaira, a senior minister, told reporters outside the court. 

Critics say that the PPP is shielding President Zardari from an investigation which, if initiated now, could lead to his prosecution after he leaves office. Zardari and his late wife, Benazir Bhutto, were ordered by a Swiss magistrate in 2003 to return $12 million in kickbacks to Pakistan. That ruling was later overturned after the government of Pakistan withdrew its case in 2008 as part of a political amnesty. The amnesty, in turn, was overturned by the present court and termed void.

Many also say that the government intends to use the trial to extract political mileage for elections expected later this year.

“The government seems to be happy that they are going down fighting for the rights of parliament,” says Rana Jawad, Islamabad bureau chief for Geo, Pakistan’s leading TV network. “They will say these cases are politically motivated, so they can go back to the electorate and say, ‘The government elected by your vote has not been allowed to complete their term.’ ”

Dressed in a business suit, Prime Minister Gilani arrived at court driving his own SUV and accompanied by his lawyer.  Senior political leaders from his coalition government had arrived earlier to show their support.

Helicopters kept watch from above while police checkpoints on roads around the court created major traffic delays for commuters.

Gilani stands firm

After presenting the list of charges, Justice Mulk asked the prime minister: “Do you plead guilty?”

“No,” Gilani replied, adding, “I will reply to the charge sheet in writing. I will defend myself.”

The attorney general was asked to compile the prosecution’s case to be presented on Feb. 22, while Gilani’s defense team must submit its arguments and a list of witnesses on Feb. 27. The judges exempted Gilani from appearing before the court on these dates.

The trial could last for weeks or months, and if Gilani is found guilty, he need not step down straight away, according to Salman Raja, a lawyer and expert on the Constitution, thereby prolonging the stand-off between the government and the judiciary.

“He could stay on until he is formally disqualified by the Election Commission,” says Raja, referring to a separate constitutional body charged with conducting elections. “The Constitution is clear that the order has to come from the Election Commission and that notification comes from the speaker [of parliament].”

Zardari could also step in to aid his beleaguered prime minister, by issuing him a pardon which can “either remit the sentence or wash away the offense,” says Raja.

Such a delay would see the PPP through Senate elections next month, strengthening their position in elections that are due in 2013 but expected by autumn.

Though the PPP has a poor record of governance, playing the "victim card" has helped Pakistan’s politicians in the past, says Rana, the bureau chief. Zardari was jailed for a total of 11 years without ever being convicted of a crime.

“Looking at the history of Pakistan, politicians emerge stronger politically when accused of charges,” he says.

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