Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf says his government will comply with a longstanding Supreme Court demand to ask Swiss authorities to reopen a graft case against President Asif Ali Zardari. Observers say the move is likely to ease tensions between the Pakistani government and the judiciary.
For nearly three years, the Supreme Court has been demanding that the Pakistani government write to Swiss authorities to request they reopen a graft case against President Zardari.
But the coalition government headed by Zardari’s Pakistan People's Party had until now refused to do so, insisting the president enjoys immunity from prosecution while in office.
This refusal to comply with the court orders led to the dismissal of one prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, earlier this year on contempt charges. His successor, Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf, has faced a similar demand since taking charge in June.
During Tuesday's Supreme Court hearing, the prime minister told the court his government has decided to write to Swiss authorities to withdraw a previous letter that halted the corruption probe against Zardari.
Supreme Court attorney and legal analyst Babar Sattar says the government's change in stance is a step in the right direction. “They had an entrenched position of not writing or communicating with the Swiss government. It seems that they have changed that position and they are trying to strike the right balance between complying with the court order while not doing anything that would bring harm to the person of Asif Ali Zardari. So I think this is a middle way out, it could prove to be an effective way to defuse the tension and the impending conflict between the judiciary and the executive.”
The corruption charges against President Zardari stem from the 1990s when his wife, the late Benazir Bhutto, was the country’s prime minister. The couple were accused of laundering millions of dollars through Swiss bank accounts.
But under a controversial law passed in 2007, then-president Pervez Musharraf withdrew the Swiss and other graft cases against Bhutto, her husband, and thousands of others and granted them amnesty.
The move was aimed at promoting political reconciliation by allowing Zardari and Bhutto to end years of self-exile and return to Pakistan. Benazir Bhutto was assassinated during a campaign rally shortly after she returned, but the sympathy vote helped her party win the 2008 elections that paved the way for her husband to become president.
But the Supreme Court struck down the controversial amnesty in 2009 and ordered the government to revive corruption cases against several politicians, including President Zardari.
During Tuesday’s proceedings, the five-member Supreme Court panel gave the government until September 25 to show the court a draft of the letter before it is delivered to Switzerland. The head of the panel, Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, also instructed the prime minister to confirm by October 2 that the letter has been sent and received by Swiss authorities.
Many experts do not see any immediate legal troubles for President Zardari even if Switzerland reopens the graft case against him, saying it will be entirely up to the Pakistani government to determine the pace of future legal proceedings.
Many also believe that without canceling constitutional immunity for the president at home, it will be difficult for Pakistani prosecutors to convince Swiss authorities to reopen the corruption case against Zardari.