Pakistan government teeters as prime minister heads to court

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The Pakistani Supreme Court gave Prime Minister Syed Raza Yousaf Gilani some breathing space today when it adjourned contempt proceedings until Feb. 1.

The court wanted Gilani to explain why he ignored a court order demanding that a letter be written to Swiss authorities to reopen a corruption case against Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.

If Gilani is convicted for contempt he may loose his right to hold public office.

The confrontation with the judiciary, which some believe has the quiet support of the army, threatens to bring down Gilani’s administration.

Still, Gilani appeared firm, calm and composed throughout the proceedings that lasted about an hour. He said he was right not to reopen the corruption case against Zardari.

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“I have discussed this with my friends and experts, and they all agree that he has got complete immunity,” Gilani said in the courtroom, flanked by governors, senior ministers and dozens of other party officials and supporters.

Outside the court room stringent security measures were in place. A security helicopter hovered over the Supreme Court and members of an anti-terror squad guarded entryways and exits of and around the premises.

Gilani’s lawyer, Aitzaz Ashan, and seven judges hearing the case subsequently exchanged fiery arguments during which the judges sought Ashan to formally claim immunity for Zardari.

Gilani leaned in a chair right behind Ashan.

Ahsan wouldn’t. “Whether he [Zardari] enjoys immunity or not is not the issue … [the issue is] if Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani believed he had immunity or not bonafidely,” he said to the judges.

“Let’s suppose it is bonafide,” one of the judges said. “Then you’ll come to 248,” he asked, referring to an article in Pakistani law on the immunity of the president.

Ashan said the article should not be invoked but adhered to. He added that it also applied to cases in foreign courts. “No Pakistani can push the president into a foreign fire,” he said.

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Cyril Almeida, a columnist and editorial writer at Dawn, a Pakistani-English language newspaper, said the judges are trying to force the issue. “The court is forcing the government into pleading some kind of a defense. The only thing left is to plead immunity,” he said.

But the government is eager to avoid that, said Roedad Khan, a former bureaucrat and political analyst. “The judges may go against it. The article doesn’t provide for unlimited immunity,” he said.

The court is likely to uphold a two-year old ruling of a 17-member bench, which included the current chief justice, that ordered the reopening of a corruption case against Zardari, analysts said.

Almeida said it was a political issue. “It’s an issue to hunt Zardari,” he said.

In 2003, a Swiss court found both Zardari and his late wife Benazir Bhutto guilty in absentia of laundering millions of dollars of kickbacks from a Swiss company, while the latter was the prime minister of Pakistan.

They went into appeal. In 2008, Gilani’s administration asked the Swiss authorities to withdraw the case, which they did.

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A year earlier Zardari and 8,040 bureaucrats and politicians and political workers had already been granted amnesty in cases ranging from murder to corruption in Pakistan in a deal between Bhutto and then president Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

The National Reconciliation Ordinance, as the deal is called, enabled Bhutto to return from self-exile after Musharraf took over in a bloodless military coup in 1999 without fearing prosecution.

The Supreme Court nullified the deal two years later, but Gilani’s government has since then done little to actually pursue the cases.

Ashan said the government would write a letter to the Swiss authorities once Zardari is no longer president. “I have every intention to implement the order as and when the law permits me,” he said.

Some analysts say that appointing Ashan as Gilani’s lawyer the government meant to send a reconciliatory message to the court. Ashan was a leader of the lawyer’s movement in 2007 that fought for the restoration of chief justice Muhammad Iftikhar Chaudhry, which had been removed by the then-president Pervez Musharraf.

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Gilani’s personal appearance in the court also sent an important signal, said Asfandyar Wali Khan, leader of the Awami National Party, a coalition-partner of the president’s party. “If there was no respect for the court he wouldn’t have come here,” he said.

Lawyers outside the court were not convinced of Gilani’s goodwill.

“Those who are with Gilani and the president are traitors,” they chanted.

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