Pakistan’s Supreme Court has rejected an appeal by its prime minister against contempt charges, paving the way for him to face indictment on Monday.
The ruling ensures a prolonged standoff between the civilian government and the judiciary, which observers say ultimately benefits the country’s powerful military and weakens democracy.
"The appeal is dismissed," Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry said in court on Friday, reading the decision of the eight-member bench.
Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani had been charged with refusing to obey the court's request to write a letter to Swiss authorities to revive a 1997 money-laundering case against President Asif Ali Zardari.
Mr. 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 prime minister’s legal team argues that as president, Zardari enjoys immunity, whereas the Supreme Court judges have stated that, immunity or not, Gilani must follow the court’s decision.
If convicted, Mr. Gilani faces six months in jail and a bar on holding public office. But if he is dismissed, Zardari's government can elect another prime minister, who could in theory also refuse to obey the court’s order, resulting in a constitutional limbo.
Last week, Pakistani political analyst Hasan Askari Rizwi told the Monitor the contempt case shows that the Supreme Court is overstepping its bounds.
“The Supreme Court has the power to go forward with contempt of court charges,” he said, “but I think it is overstretching its domain, and this will cause greater uncertainty and confusion in our already troubled politics.”
Gilani’s lawyer, Aitzaz Ahsan, was a key figure in Pakistan’s lawyers’ movement that helped overthrow dictator Pervez Musharraf and restore judges who were previously fired. His emotive appeals to the court to consider the prime minister’s role in restoring those judges to office were dismissed by Chief Justice Chaudhry, who said that the appeal against the court’s decision could itself be seen as a fresh contempt.
Also on Friday, a judicial commission assigned to investigate whether the government sent a secret memo to the United States calling for help in reining back the military and preventing a coup ruled that a private US citizen at the center of the scandal may testify via video-link from London.
Because the US citizen, Mansoor Ijaz, has refused to come to Pakistan, citing security concerns, analysts believed the case against the government would collapse. However, it appears now that it will continue.