Pakistan's constitutional crisis deepened yesterday when the country's Supreme Court announced that it planned to charge the Prime Minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, with contempt for failing to re-open a corruption case against the President.
After many hours of debate and exchanges with the Prime Minister's legal team, the court ordered Mr Gilani to appear on 13 February, when the charges will be formally presented. If convicted, he faces up to six months in prison and could be forced from his position.
"After the preliminary hearing, we are satisfied ... there is enough [of a case to proceed]," the seven members of the court announced.
When Mr Gilani was attending the World Economic Forum in Davos last week, he made comments that suggested the turmoil that had gripped Pakistan and forced the government's back to the wall was easing.
But the court's relentless pursuit of an old corruption allegation against President Asif Ali Zardari has set up a collision course between the civilian government and the judiciary, headed by the chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry. There seem to be few options for an easy solution.
The court has been trying since 2009 to get the Swiss authorities to re-open an investigation dating back to the 1990s that has long been mothballed. In 2003 Mr Zardari and his late wife, the former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, were found guilty in absentia by a Swiss court of laundering millions of dollars.
The government has persistently argued that the President has immunity from prosecution because of his position. Allegations of corruption earned Mr Zardari the nickname "Mr 10 Per Cent". He and his late wife always maintained that the charges were politically motivated. Mr Gilani's lawyer, the celebrated advocate Aitzaz Ahsan, sought yesterday to persuade the court that his client was not in contempt because he had, in good faith, been following the guidance of his advisers who believed Mr Zardari had immunity. The court did not agree, hence its decision to recall the Prime Minister, who appeared in person last month.
Mr Gilani has the legal and constituional right to appeal against the court's decision before he is due to appear, and he is likely to do so, Mr Ahsan told reporters outside the court, according to Reuters. Mr Ahsan was unavailable for comment last night.
Mr Zardari is widely unpopular, and in recent months he and his governing party, the Pakistan People's Party, have faced threats not just from the court but from political opponents and the military. In May, the military leadership demanded a judicial inquiry after a presidential envoy allegedly sent a note to the US military asking for American help to avert a military takeover in the wake of Osama bin Laden's assassination. The ensuing saga became known as "memogate".
The threat to Mr Gilani from the court came a day after officials revealed that a package containing anthrax spores had been sent to his official residence four months ago. The authorities are investigating.Reuse content