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In landmark trial, Pakistan prime minister charged with contempt

The indictment of Pakistan Prime Minister Gilani has polarized public opinion, with some seeing a victory for rule of law, but others worried about an antidemocratic precedent.

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Pakistan's Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani (C) waves after arriving at the Supreme Court in Islamabad February 13. Pakistan's Supreme Court charged the embattled prime minister with contempt of court on Monday for his refusal to re-open old corruption cases against the head of his political party, President Asif Ali Zardari.

Faisal Mahmood/REUTERS

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Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani pleaded not guilty to contempt charges brought against him by the Supreme Court on Monday, in a landmark trial that some see as a step forward for the rule-of-law but others say is a dangerous antidemocratic precedent.

Reading from a strongly worded charge-sheet, Justice Nasir-ul-Mulk said the prime minister had “willfully flouted, disregarded, and disobeyed instructions by this court" by failing to write a letter to Swiss authorities to reopen a money-laundering case against President Asif Ali Zardari. The government argues that, as president, Mr. Zardari enjoys immunity at home and abroad and as such will not write the letter.

It is the first time that a Pakistani prime minister has been indicted on contempt charges. Mr. Gilani faces up to six months in jail and being barred from office if convicted.

The proceedings have polarized public opinion, with supporters of Gilani’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and many independent analysts characterizing Monday’s indictment as a “sad day” for democracy and evidence that the judiciary is overstepping its constitutional bounds.

“For the first time, the PM has been charged. It’s a sad day in the history of Pakistan,” Qamar Zaman Qaira, a senior minister, told reporters outside the court. 

Critics say that the PPP is shielding President Zardari from an investigation which, if initiated now, could lead to his prosecution after he leaves office. Zardari and his late wife, Benazir Bhutto, were ordered by a Swiss magistrate in 2003 to return $12 million in kickbacks to Pakistan. That ruling was later overturned after the government of Pakistan withdrew its case in 2008 as part of a political amnesty. The amnesty, in turn, was overturned by the present court and termed void.

Many also say that the government intends to use the trial to extract political mileage for elections expected later this year.

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