ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- The Supreme Court indicted Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gilani on contempt charges Monday, accusing him of repeatedly ignoring its orders to revive long-standing corruption proceedings against his boss, President Asif Ali Zardari.
Gilani must now brace for a trial in coming weeks that could end in his conviction, his disqualification from holding office for five years and a prison term of up to six months.
Appearing at a packed courtroom at the Supreme Court, Gilani could have forestalled the indictment by telling the seven-judge panel that he would comply with its order to write a letter to Swiss authorities asking that they reopen an old money-laundering case against Zardari. Instead, Gilani pleaded not guilty after Justice Nasirul Mulk detailed the charges, making him Pakistan's first prime minister to be indicted while in office.
Zardari and his late wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, were convicted in absentia in 2003 of laundering millions of dollars in bribes from Swiss firms when Bhutto was in power. Bhutto was assassinated in 2007, and Zardari assumed leadership of her party and the presidency a year later.
Swiss authorities dropped the case at the request of the Pakistani government in 2008, a year after military ruler Pervez Musharraf granted an amnesty for politicians and bureaucrats accused in graft cases. The Supreme Court in 2009 ruled that the amnesty was unconstitutional and ordered the reopening of the graft cases that had been set aside, including the Swiss case.
Gilani has consistently stood by Zardari’s claim that the president cannot be prosecuted while in office. He said he is willing to go to jail on a contempt conviction rather than pursue a reopening of the Swiss case.
"For the first time, the prime minister has been charged -- it's a sad day in the history of Pakistan," Qamar Zaman Kaira, a leading lawmaker in Zardari's party, told reporters outside the courthouse.
Gilani's indictment marks the culmination of a protracted battle between Pakistan's beleaguered civilian government and an aggressive Supreme Court that some observers view as intent on bringing down Zardari and his team. Along with the Swiss case, the high court has been probing a Pakistani American businessman's allegations that Zardari's onetime ambassador to the U.S. engineered a memo requesting Washington's assistance in preventing a potential military overthrow of Pakistan's civilian government last year. The case could ramp up pressure on Zardari if it's shown that he either orchestrated the memo or authorized it.
Supreme Court supporters say the high court is simply carrying out its legal responsibilities by scrutinizing Zardari and his civilian government. Other experts, however, say bad blood between Zardari and the Supreme Court's chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, may explain the high court's actions against the president.
After Musharraf was driven out of office in 2008, Zardari became president and later reinstated many of the judges fired by Musharraf during his nine years of military rule. But he balked at reinstating others, including Chaudhry -- a hesitation many in Pakistan believe was tied to Zardari's fear that Chaudhry would revive old graft cases involving the president. Zardari reinstated Chaudhry, but only after succumbing to intense pressure from the country's grass-roots lawyers movement and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif.
Though Gilani's conviction would mark severe setback for Zardari's government, experts say his ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) still has the votes in parliament to be able to select Gilani's replacement and stay in power until national elections, which are slated for 2013 but could be held later this year.
Gilani appears to have agreed to sacrifice himself for the sake of his party, analysts say. Zardari has the authority to keep Gilani out of jail with a presidential pardon, but Gilani still would be ousted as prime minister and would not be able to serve in parliament if convicted.
His departure would deal Zardari's party a significant blow -- a member of the PPP since 1988, Gilani is seen as one of Zardari's fiercest defenders as well as a deft troubleshooter who favors compromise over confrontation. He proved his loyalty to his party in 2001, when Musharraf gave him and other PPP loyalists an ultimatum to either forsake their party and align themselves with Musharraf’s camp, or go to jail. Gilani refused to switch parties, and after a corruption conviction on charges widely viewed as politically motivated, he spent five years in a Rawalpindi prison.
Though Swiss authorities have stated that they believe Zardari is protected by constitutional immunity, analysts say Zardari’s team is reluctant to write the Swiss government about the case because doing so could signal to the Swiss that the Pakistani government no longer thinks Zardari is legally shielded from prosecution.
Ultimately, Zardari's government hopes to cling to power through Senate elections in March that likely would bolster the PPP’s clout in parliament, as well as through the summer, when the party's coalition can pass a budget that rewards politically important regions and constituencies ahead of national elections.
The Supreme Court initiated contempt proceedings last month after repeated attempts over the last two years to get Gilani to revive the Swiss case against Zardari. At previous hearings, Gilani's lawyer, Aitzaz Ahsan, has argued that Gilani should not be punished for not complying with the court's order because he was following the advice of his legal team to not write the letter.
"The prime minister has not done anything unconstitutional," Mehreen Anwar Raja, a PPP lawmaker and former law minister, said outside the courthouse. "The case is there, and God willing, we will defend it because we have not done anything wrong."
-- Alex Rodriguez