REPORTING FROM ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- Dealing a heavy blow to Pakistan's embattled government, the country's high court on Monday initiated contempt proceedings against Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani for refusing to revive a long-standing corruption case against President Asif Ali Zardari.
Gilani, a top ally of the president in the ruling Pakistan People's Party, must appear before the Supreme Court on Thursday, when the justices will listen to his explanation for not pursuing with the case. If the court moves forward with the contempt proceedings and Gilani is convicted, he could be disqualified from office and forced to step down. He also could be forced to serve up to six months in jail.
Zardari's government is locked in battles with the Supreme Court and Pakistan’s powerful military, both of which have had an acrimonious relationship with the president since he took office in 2008. The crisis has stirred talk of the government possibly being ousted, though experts say such a scenario likely would happen through legal action taken by the high court rather than a military coup.
The military has ousted civilian leaders four times in Pakistan's 64-year history, but its current leadership has publicly stated that it has no plans to mount a takeover.
Nevertheless, the nation's generals were deeply angered by the emergence of an unsigned memo that a Pakistani American businessman contends was engineered by a top Zardari ally and which sought Washington's help in preventing a potential military coup last spring in exchange for several concessions, including the elimination of a wing of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency that maintains links with Afghan insurgent groups.
The businessman, Mansoor Ijaz, claims it was then-Ambassador to the U.S. Husain Haqqani who approached him with the idea. Haqqani, who was forced to resign after the allegations surfaced, denies any involvement in the creation or conveyance of the memo. A Supreme Court commission is probing the case, and on Monday ordered Ijaz to come to Pakistan and appear before the panel Jan. 24.
The high court's move to start contempt proceedings against Gilani involves a money-laundering case in Switzerland in which Zardari was convicted in absentia in 2003. The case was on hold during an appeal by Zardari and his late wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and was dropped at the request of the Pakistani government in 2008.
Since 2009, Pakistan's high court has repeatedly ordered the government to write a letter to Swiss authorities asking that the case be reopened. Gilani and other government lawyers have refused, arguing that Zardari, as president, enjoys constitutional immunity from prosecution.
Last week, the Supreme Court warned Gilani that it could remove him from office if he did not abide by the demand to pursue the case.
-- Alex Rodriguez
Photo: Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, right, walks with President Asif Ali Zardari, center, and Minister of Religious Affairs Khurshid Shah as they arrive for a meeting in Islamabad on Monday to discuss the Supreme Court's contempt proceedings against the prime minister. Credit: EPA / Pakistani Press Information Department