By Chris Allbritton and Serena Chaudhry
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - By indicting Pakistan's embattled prime minister for contempt of court on Monday, the Supreme Court may have cemented its role as a political player alongside the military and the civilian government, complicating an already Byzantine political scene.
Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani was indicted on Monday for refusing to follow a court order to reopen old corruption cases against his party boss, President Asif Ali Zardari. Gilani, who pleaded not guilty, and his advisers say Zardari has immunity as head of state, but the court remains unconvinced.
"You, Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani, have willfully disobeyed the direction of this court," said Justice Nasir-ul-Mulk, the head of the seven-judge bench hearing the case. "Thereby you have committed contempt of court ... and you are to be tried."
Proceedings will start on February 16, when the prosecution will submit its evidence. Gilani has said that if convicted, he will be forced to step down. He could also face up to six months in jail.
The civilian-judicial confrontation stems from thousands of old corruption cases thrown out in 2007 by an amnesty law passed under former military president Pervez Musharraf.
Zardari was its most prominent beneficiary and the main target of the court, which voided the law in 2009 and ordered the government to write a letter to Swiss authorities requesting the re-opening of cases accusing the president of money laundering using Swiss bank accounts.
THREE-WAY POLITICAL FIGHT
The Supreme Court's relentless pursuit of Zardari and the PPP may have made it the third player in the complicated political system of Pakistan, for years either dominated by military rule or punctuated by weak civilian governments.
"The Supreme Court's increasing activism poses complicated political choices for the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) government as it heads into a critical election cycle that begins with Senate elections on March 2," wrote Shamila Chaudhary in a recent analysis for the Eurasia Group.
But the question is how independent is the court as a check on both the military and the civilian government?
"That's the million dollar question," said Najam Sethi, editor of the weekly Friday Times.
The court has a full docket of cases aimed at the government. In addition to the unwritten letter to Swiss authorities, there is the matter of an unsigned memo to the Pentagon brass.
Sent in the aftermath of the U.S. commando raid that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani town last year, the memo asked for American help in forestalling an alleged coup by an embarrassed and unpredictable military.
The army was furious over the memo, and its top general and the chief of the ISI spy agency both urged the Supreme Court to investigate, which it did.
"The Supreme Court has become very close to the military," said Ahmed Rashid, a prominent journalist and political analyst. "For the time being, I see the military and the courts working against the sitting government."
But the court has also given at least the appearance of being willing to take on the military, he said. It has taken up the case of suspected militants illegally detained by intelligence agencies and seven of those held were briefly presented in court on Monday.
But some observers say that is merely a feint to give the appearance of even-handedness.
"Let's see where it goes," said defense analyst Ayesha Siddiqa. "Because so far, they have completely stayed away from treating the army or the ISI chief or anybody from the ISI the same way as they do the civilians."
Some other analysts agree, saying the court is strengthening the hand of the military, which has staged three coups since 1947 and ruled the country for more than half of its history.
"This will not be good news for democracy," said political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi. "Once again, non-elected institutions are trying to re-formulate the elected institutions. Previously, the military was doing it, now it is the judiciary."
The military controls foreign policy and national security, and has been accused of maintaining ties to militant groups, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, which allegedly staged the 2008 assault on Mumbai that killed 166 people, and the Haqqani network, one of the deadliest factions of the Afghan Taliban insurgency.
Establishing civilian control of the military and convincing the generals to cut ties to these militant groups is a top priority for India, the United States and other governments. But Pakistan's weakened civilians have little leverage -- especially when they are fighting for their political lives.
"The attention of the government is fully diverted to survival," Rizvi said. "So survival becomes the key issue and other issues are on the sidelines."
(Additional reporting by Rebecca Conway and Qasim Nauman; Editing by Ron Popeski)