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Pakistani court strikes down contempt immunity for prime minister

August 3, 2012 |  7:07 am

AshrafISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The Pakistani Supreme Court on Friday struck down a controversial law that critics contend was enacted solely to shield the new prime minister from suffering the same fate as his predecessor, who was ousted for failing to resurrect a longstanding graft case against President Asif Ali Zardari.

The law, pushed through parliament last month by Zardari’s ruling Pakistan People’s Party-led coalition, exempted senior government ministers, including the prime minister, from contempt proceedings.

In June, the high court removed Zardari’s longtime ally, Yousuf Raza Gilani, from office after convicting him of contempt charges for refusing to ask the Swiss government to reopen corruption proceedings against Zardari that involved allegations of kickbacks.

The high court, led by Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, has been trying to get the government to pursue the graft case against Zardari since 2009. But Gilani repeatedly maintained he could not abide by the request, arguing that as president Zardari enjoys constitutional immunity from prosecution.

In issuing the court's ruling Friday, Chaudhry said the new law violated Pakistan’s constitution. No public official, no matter what office is involved, could be declared exempt from contempt proceedings, he said.

“The court is empowered to punish any person for his contempt without any exception,” said Chaudhry.

The high court’s ruling Friday means that Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf could face contempt proceedings and a possible ouster if he charts the same course Gilani took. The high court will convene again Wednesday to hear Ashraf’s decision, but his government has already stated that it has no plans to ask Swiss authorities to reopen the Zardari case.

The relationship between Zardari and Chaudhry’s high court has always been acrimonious, and it could worsen if Ashraf continues to defy the court. Ashraf’s ouster would force Zardari to again secure enough votes in parliament to find a replacement, and while he was able to do that following Gilani’s removal, it is unclear whether he could muster the same level of support among lawmakers a second time.

The standoff between the government and high court comes at a particularly vulnerable time for the Pakistan People’s Party as it prepares for elections in early 2013 and faces a voting public frustrated by an ailing economy and power outages of more than 12 hours a day in some cities.

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-- Alex Rodriguez. Nasir Khan contributed.

Photo: Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf, shown in a June 25 file photo in the city of Karachi, is under pressure from the country's Supreme Court to ask Switzerland to reopen corruption proceedings against President Asif Ali Zardari. Credit: Rizwan Tabassum / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images.

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