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January 18, 2012

Pakistani PM Appears Before Supreme Court

by Ayaz Gul

Pakistan’s beleaguered prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, has made a rare appearance before the country's supreme court, amid increased tensions between his government and the country’s fiercely independent judiciary.

Gilani appeared before the supreme court in a bid to avoid being held in contempt for his failure to pursue corruption cases against President Asif Ali Zardari.

Thursday's preliminary proceedings took place amid tight security in and around the court building and were mainly aimed at allowing the prime minister to explain his position.

Gilani told the court his government was unable to initiate legal proceedings against the president because he has immunity while in office.

Afterward, his attorney, Aitzaz Ahsan, told reporters that the prime minister’s presence demonstrates the government holds the judiciary in high honors.

“He [Gilani] has accepted the majesty of the law and the majesty of the supreme court,” said Ahsan.

The supreme court will reconvene early next month, but agreed that the prime minister would not have to appear again in person.

Politically motivated

The corruption cases against Zardari date back to the 1990s when his slain wife Benazir Bhutto was prime minister of Pakistan. Some of the cases were instituted in Switzerland. But Zardari and his wife insisted the cases were false and politically motivated.

A controversial amnesty deal that protected President Zardari and thousands others from prosecution was canceled by the supreme court two years ago. The government was also ordered to revive all the cases and write a letter to Swiss authorities to reopen the legal proceedings there.

Legal analysts like former Pakistani law minister Syed Mohammad Zafar believe it is for the supreme court to determine whether the prime minister’s argument claiming immunity for Zardari holds.

“The supreme court will see whether the reiteration has any validity or not," said Zafar. "And, if it finds that it has no validity it may proceed to announce an order of the contempt.”

Possible sentence

If convicted on contempt charges, the Pakistani prime minister could face up to six months in prison and be disqualified from holding political office. That could destabilize the government and push President Zardari into deeper political trouble.

The legal troubles for Pakistan’s embattled coalition government come amid growing tensions with the country’s powerful military. That conflict stems from an alleged presidential memo seeking Washington’s help in removing the current military leadership.

The political tensions also come at a time when the country’s ties with the United States are at their lowest since the November cross-border NATO air attack that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.