REPORTING FROM ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- A perilous crisis ensnaring Pakistan's civilian government escalated Thursday, as the country's high court decided that it will indict Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gilani on contempt charges for failing to pursue corruption proceedings against his boss, President Asif Ali Zardari.
If convicted, Gilani could be disqualified from office and imprisoned for up to six months, a development that would threaten the ruling Pakistan People's Party's hold on government and further destabilize a difficult but important U.S. ally in the war on terror. Zardari's administration has been under intense pressure from an aggressive Supreme Court and the country's powerful military since taking over in 2008.
The Supreme Court initiated contempt proceedings against Gilani last month, when he refused to abide by the high court’s demand that he write a letter to Swiss authorities asking for the revival of a long-standing corruption case involving 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.
Gilani and other government lawyers have maintained they cannot write that letter because Zardari, as president, has constitutional immunity that shields him from prosecution.
Gilani’s lawyer, Aitzaz Ahsan, also argued that his client should not be punished for failing to comply with the court's order because he was following the advice of his legal team.
A seven-judge panel hearing Ahsan's arguments disagreed, saying Gilani defied the court's authority by refusing to seek a reopening of the Swiss case. The panel continued the case to Feb. 13, when Gilani is set to be formally indicted. The judges ordered Gilani to appear on that date. Ahsan said he would appeal the court's decision to proceed with an indictment.
The country's judiciary has been at odds with Zardari since the early days of his presidency, when he initially balked at reinstating Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry as chief justice. Chaudhry and other Supreme Court justices had been fired by former military ruler Pervez Musharraf in 2007. Zardari restored them to their former positions in 2009, but only after being forced to do so by Pakistani lawyers who led large protests demanding the reinstatement of the judges.
After the panel's ruling Thursday, Ahsan urged the high court to refrain from worsening the already tense relationship between the country's judiciary and its civilian government.
"Any collision between constitutional institutions should be avoided," Ahsan said outside the courthouse. "Such collisions and tension isn't good for the country."
Thursday's proceedings left unclear just how much immunity Zardari has. The government maintains that Zardari’s immunity means the president cannot be charged with any crime while he remains in office, but some critics contend that the protection applies only to his activities as president.
In the last two years, the high court had repeatedly urged Zardari's government to appear before it to legally defend its immunity claim. So far, the government consistently refused, saying there was no need to debate the issue because presidential immunity is embodied in the country’s constitution.
-- Alex Rodriguez
Photo: Aitzaz Ahsan, center, lawyer for Pakistan's Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, talks with journalists after the Supreme Court hearing Thursday in Islamabad. Credit: T. Mughal / EPA