Pakistan PM faces top court contempt hearing

Reuters News
Posted: Feb 02, 2012 5:03 AM
Pakistan PM faces top court contempt hearing

By Qasim Nauman

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan's Supreme Court on Thursday prepared to charge the prime minister with contempt of court for his failure to re-open corruption cases against President Asif Ali Zardari, breaking an uneasy calm of political tension with the judiciary.

"After the preliminary hearing, we are satisfied ... there is enough (of a) case" to proceed further, the seven-member bench ordered.

"The case is adjourned until February 13 for the framing of charges. The prime minister will be present in person."

Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, speaking in Davos, Switzerland last week, had suggested a three-month period of high political tension in the country, including a standoff with the military over a mysterious memo, had eased considerably.

But Thursday's order and Gilani's anticipated appeal are expected to ensure a continued achingly slow-motion duel between the Supreme Court and the government, which has squared off with the judiciary almost since Zardari took office in 2008.

"He has the constitutional, legal right to appeal," his lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan said. "It would be my recommendation to my client to appeal. He will then decide."

If convicted, Gilani could face jail and lose his office.

The legal tussle stems from thousands of old corruption cases thrown out in 2007 by a controversial amnesty law passed under former military president Pervez Musharraf.

Zardari is its most prominent beneficiary and the main target of the court, which voided the law in 2009 and ordered the re-opening of cases accusing the president of money laundering using Swiss bank accounts.

Zardari remains the chairman of the Pakistan People's Party, which leads the coalition government.

Gilani and his advisors have refused to request that the Swiss re-open the cases, arguing that Zardari has immunity as the head of state. The court remains unconvinced.

Zardari's is the longest-running civilian administration in Pakistan's coup-marred history, but has become deeply unpopular, seen as both corrupt and incompetent.

Political instability and brinkmanship has consumed the nuclear-armed country in recent years, preventing it from addressing crushing poverty and other economic ills, or containing a rampaging insurgency that is endangering the U.S.-led war effort in Afghanistan.

(Writing by Chris Allbritton; Editing by Ed Lane)