REPORTING FROM ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gilani appeared before a Supreme Court panel Thursday to defend himself in contempt-of-court proceedings, succeeding in staving off an immediate ruling in a high-stakes case that could lead to his ouster and jeopardize his party's hold on government.
Earlier this week, the high court initiated contempt proceedings against Gilani, contending he had deliberately ignored its frequent demands to pursue a long-standing corruption case against his boss, President Asif Ali Zardari. That case, a money-laundering charge in Switzerland against Zardari and his late wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was dropped by Swiss authorities 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 against Zardari be reopened. Gilani and other government lawyers have maintained they cannot write that letter because Zardari, as president, has constitutional immunity that shields him from prosecution.
A conviction of Zardari's prime minister would also deal a severe blow to the ruling Pakistan People's Party at a time when it finds itself under siege from the court, the country's powerful military and opposition leaders urging early elections.
To better position itself against what it sees as a hostile high court, the government chose as Gilani's lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan, a leader of the so-called Lawyers Movement that successfully fought for the reinstatement of Supreme Court justices ousted from the bench by Gen. Pervez Musharraf when he was the country's military ruler.
Ahsan told the seven-judge panel hearing the case that Gilani has never acquiesced to the court's insistence to write the letter to Swiss authorities because he has always earnestly believed that Zardari was protected by constitutional immunity.
Ahsan said he needed more time to pore through two years of documents to research the immunity issue, so that he return to court and explain why Gilani's belief was justified.
The court continued the case until Feb. 1, giving Ahsan two weeks to build a case for Zardari's immunity.
Outside court, Ahsan would not say if the government would relent and write to Swiss authorities if it lost its debate with the high court over the immunity issue. Instead, Ahsan said he was confident he could convince Supreme Court justices that Zardari cannot be prosecuted while president.
"As long as he is president, he has sovereign immunity," Ahsan said.
-- Alex Rodriguez
Photo: Pakistan's Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani waves to supporters after his arrival at the Supreme Court. Credit: T. Mughal / EPA