Pakistan’s top court began contempt proceedings Monday against the prime minister for failing to carry out its order to reopen a corruption case against the president,ramping up pressure on the beleaguered civilian government and pushing the country deeper into political crisis.
The Supreme Court ruling opened up the possibility that Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani could be prosecuted,imprisoned and dismissed at the hands of the judges.
It came as the government is locked in a conflict with the Army,and boosted the sense the administration could fall,squeezed between the court and the powerful generals.
The court ordered Gilani to appear before the bench on Thursday to explain his refusal to open the corruption probe against President Asif Ali Zardari.
Gilani might choose not to attend the hearing,which could trigger his immediate disqualification from holding office,or pledge to open the graft case. That would carry a political cost,and is something that Zardari’s ruling party has said it will never do.
The judges have ordered the government to write to Swiss authorities requesting they reopen a corruption case against Zardari that dates back to the 1990s and involves the jurisdiction of the Swiss courts. The government has refused,saying Zardari has immunity. Its supporters say the court is pursuing a vendetta against the country’s civilian leadership.
The government also is at odds with the army over an unsigned memo delivered to Washington last year offering the U.S. a raft of favorable security policies in exchange for its help in thwarting a supposed military coup.
The army was outraged by the memo and pushed the Supreme Court to open an inquiry into the scandal against the government’s wishes. Some observers believe the court’s pressure on the graft case is being orchestrated by the military to put maximum pressure on the government.
Pakistan has long been plagued by tension between the civilian government and the army,which has seized power in three coups since the country was founded in 1947. The government has given the generals control over foreign and security policy,but the civilian leadership and the top brass have never seen eye-to-eye since Zardari and Gilani took office in 2008.
The head of the Supreme Court,Mohammad Iftikhar Chaudhry,has also clashed with Zardari.
Federal Law Minister Maula Bakhsh Chandio said the government would review the court’s ruling and ”obey the law and the constitution.”
”This is not a small or an ordinary thing,” he said outside the court. ”This is a Supreme Court order.”
The government has vowed to see out its term,scheduled to end in 2013,and oversee elections — the first time in the country’s history that power would be handed over via the ballot box. But the crisis threatens to upend that,and some lawmakers in Zardari’s party speculate that elections could be called earlier to try and soothe tensions.
Gilani criticized the army last week for cooperating with the Supreme Court probe into the memo scandal. He has said the standoff is nothing less than a choice between ”democracy and dictatorship’.’ Gilani’s comments followed a warning from the generals of possible ”grievous consequences” ahead.
Zardari has been vulnerable to prosecution since 2009 when the Supreme Court struck down an amnesty granting him and other leading political figures immunity from past graft cases. The court deemed the amnesty,which was granted in 2008,unconstitutional.
The court has zeroed in on one corruption investigation taken up by the Swiss government against Zardari that was halted in 2008 when Pakistani prosecutors,acting on the amnesty,told Swiss authorities to drop the case.
Ahead of Monday’s crucial hearing in the Supreme Court,embattled Prime Minister Gilani had turned to Parliament for support,amid indications that the powerful military would rally behind the apex court.
The National Assembly or lower house of Parliament is expected to vote on a resolution that seeks endorsement and support for “efforts made by the political leadership for strengthening democracy” and calls for reposing “full confidence and trust” in the leadership.
Even as Parliament considers the resolution,a 17-member bench of the Supreme Court will resume hearing of a case on reopening of corruption cases that were closed under the National Reconciliation Ordinance,a graft amnesty issued by former military ruler Pervez Musharraf in 2007.
A judicial commission appointed by the apex court to investigate a mysterious memo that sought US help to prevent a feared military coup in Pakistan last year will also continue its proceedings at the same time.
Tensions between the government and the military reached a peak last week after Gilani said the Army and intelligence chiefs had acted in an “unconstitutional and illegal” manner by filing affidavits on the memo issue in the Supreme Court without getting the government’s approval.
The military rebuked Gilani,saying his remarks could have “grievous consequences”. Gilani retaliated the same day by sacking Defence Secretary Lt Gen (retired) Khalid Naeem Lodhi,a confidant of Kayani,saying he had created misunderstandings over the memo issue.
The apex court accepted Kayani’s request for a probe into the memo scandal while rejecting the government’s contention that the issue should be investigated by a parliamentary panel.
The Supreme Court has been building pressure on the government since it struck down the NRO,which benefited President Zardari and 8,000 others,in 2009.
Zardari himself has said that the government will not approach the Swiss authorities as long as he is in office as such a move would be tantamount to putting on trial the grave of his wife,former premier Benazir Bhutto,who too had benefited from the NRO.
However,the Supreme Court warned last week that the premier could be disqualified and that action could also be taken against the President if the government kept defying its orders on the NRO issue.