ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan’s prime minister told a Supreme Court panel Tuesday that his government would no longer stand in the way of a revival of a longstanding graft case in Switzerland against President Asif Ali Zardari, a decision that could help tamp down tensions in the bitterly contentious relationship between Zardari’s government and the country’s judiciary.
The decision represents a significant turnaround in strategy for Zardari’s ruling Pakistan People’s Party, which for nearly three years has resisted the high court’s demand to rescind a 2008 notification from the Pakistani government to Swiss authorities that corruption proceedings against Zardari in that country be dropped.
The Swiss case against Zardari has remained closed since that notification. Appearing before a five-judge panel Tuesday, Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf said he has ordered his law minister to draft a letter to Swiss authorities withdrawing the 2008 notification.
The move would give Swiss authorities the option of reopening corruption proceedings against Zardari. However, the president likely would not face any renewed prosecution in Switzerland, since authorities there have always agreed with his aides that, as president, he has constitutional immunity from prosecution.
“It doesn’t mean a reopening" of the Swiss case against Zardari, said Rehman Malik, Pakistan’s interior minister and a longtime Zardari ally. “The prerogative is still with the Swiss authorities, and they will have to proceed according to law.”
The charges in Switzerland center on allegations of kickbacks that Zardari and his late wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, were convicted of in absentia in 2003. They were accused of taking millions of dollars in kickbacks from Swiss companies during Bhutto’s rule in the 1990s. The case was on hold while the couple appealed, and was later dropped at the request of the Pakistani government in 2008.
Since 2009, the high court, led by Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, has been aggressively pushing the government to write a letter asking authorities in Switzerland to reopen the case. Many experts believe Chaudhry’s interest in the case is driven by the deep animosity tainting his relationship with Zardari since 2008, when Zardari became president.
At that time, Zardari balked at restoring Chaudhry as chief justice, who had been ousted earlier by the country’s former military leader, Pervez Musharraf. Zardari feared that the chief justice would seek a revival of the Swiss corruption charges if Chaudhry were reinstated. Zardari later relented, following massive displays of popular support for Chaudhry.
Zardari’s allies said their acquiescence on the Swiss matter was driven by the need to heal longstanding rifts between the government and the high court, which were threatening the country’s political stability ahead of national elections slated for 2013. Ashraf’s predecessor, Yusaf Raza Gilani, was convicted of contempt of court earlier this year for failing to pursue the Swiss case and thrown out of office by the high court.
“Elections are near—I want this issue resolved amicably,” Ashraf told the panel, led by Justice Asif Saeed Khosa. “I don’t want to be on the wrong side of history.”
Outside the courthouse, Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira added that “the government is of the view that we cannot afford this rift, this standstill position. There’s chaos in the country at the moment, and we want to end it.”
Khosa, who had been threatening to file contempt charges against Ashraf for charting the same course that Gilani took, appeared content with the government’s reversal. He asked Ashraf’s administration to submit to him by Sept. 25 a draft letter informing Swiss authorities of the Pakistani government’s withdrawal of the 2008 request that sought a shutdown of the Zardari graft case.
“We appreciate efforts made by the prime minister towards resolution of this longstanding issue,” Khosa said in court.
-- Alex Rodriguez
Photo: Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf, center, smiles upon arriving at the Supreme Court for a hearing in Islamabad, Pakistan, on Tuesday. Credit: Anjum Naveed / Associated Press