Pakistan’s Supreme Court has charged Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani with contempt for defying its order to reopen old corruption cases against his party chief, President Asif Ali Zardari. If convicted, the beleaguered prime minister could face six months in jail and lose his job.
Court proceedings begin
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani complied with Supreme Court orders Monday to be present in the crowded Islamabad courtroom where a seven-member panel of judges charged him with contempt.
The proceedings mark the formal beginning of the high-profile trial, making Gilani Pakistan’s first chief executive ever to be indicted while in office.
The contempt charges stem from an earlier court ruling that ordered the prime minister to reopen old graft cases against President Asif Ali Zardari, including those instituted in foreign countries, particularly in Switzerland.
But Gilani has consistently refused to do so, insisting the country’s constitution does not allow him to initiate any legal proceedings against Zardari as long as he is the president of Pakistan.
Contempt charges announced
The lead judge, Nasir ul-Mulk, while reading out the contempt charges to the Pakistani prime minister, stated that Gilani has “willfully flouted, disregarded and disobeyed” the order by the Supreme Court.
The prime minister told the judges he understood the charges and pledged to contest them. Commentators say the trial is likely to escalate the political crisis brewing in Pakistan.
Legal experts like former law minister Senator Syed Mohammad Zafar say the prime minister’s decision to plead not guilty has left him with very few options. However, he says Gilani could still avoid conviction if at any stage during the contempt proceedings he apologizes and pledges to reopen corruption cases against President Zardari.
“But in that case, it shall be then the discretion of the court to accept his apology or not accept his apology. So the window is now very narrow for him to take any option," Zafar said. "He is now a prime minister under charge of contempt, which will certainly undermine his position. When he says he is going to contest, he is closing his options.”
Impending political shake up
Prime Minister Gilani has said he would be forced to step down if the Supreme Court convicted him, and he could face up to six months in jail as well.
Corruption cases against President Zardari and thousands of others date back to the 1990s but were thrown out in 2007 by a controversial amnesty law passed under the former military president Pervez Musharraf.
The Supreme Court outlawed the amnesty in late 2009 and ordered Gilani’s coalition government to revive all the court cases within Pakistan and to write letter to Swiss authorities to do the same in their country, where Zadari is suspected of having laundered millions of dollars. Zardari has denied the allegations.