Pakistani PM charged with contempt, job on the line in court showdown
The judges are set to charge Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani with contempt for defying their orders to reopen an old corruption case against his political ally, President Asif Ali Zardari.
Pakistan's prime minister is showing no indication of backing down ahead of a face-to-face showdown with the Supreme Court on Monday, even though his stance could cost him his job and land him in prison.
Court supporters say the judges are upholding the rule of law. But government loyalists accuse the chief justice of pursuing a personal vendetta against president, or of acting on behalf of the army to topple the government.
Analysts say Gilani seems willing to sacrifice himself and go to jail for the benefit of his party. But no matter how it ends, the case has distracted the government from dealing with the country's ailing economy and a violent Islamist insurgency.
The political turmoil has been a problem for the United States as well, because it wants Pakistan to focus on repairing troubled relations between the two countries and help negotiate peace with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
"The case has been very destabilizing because it has increased uncertainty, and the government is always worried about its survival," said Pakistani political analyst Hasan-Askari Rizvi. "A government whose performance is poor has become poorer."
The case against Zardari relates to kickbacks he and his late wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, allegedly received from Swiss companies when Bhutto was in power in the 1990s. They were found guilty in absentia in a Swiss court in 2003.
Zardari appealed, but Swiss prosecutors dropped the case after the Pakistani parliament passed an ordinance giving the president and others immunity from old corruption cases that many agreed were politically motivated.
The bill was decried by many in Pakistan, who saw it as an attempt to subvert the law. The Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in 2009, and also ordered the government to write a letter to Swiss authorities requesting they reopen the case. The government has refused, saying the president enjoys immunity from prosecution while in office.
The court stepped up pressure on the government earlier this year and decided in early February to charge Gilani with contempt. It turned down an appeal against the charge last week.
"I think the probability that Gilani will agree to send the letter is very low," said Rizvi, the analyst. "It looks like he will be convicted."
If convicted, Gilani could face up to six months in prison and be disqualified from holding public office. The national assembly would then vote for a new prime minister, but the process could drag for months.
The prime minister seemed to indicate Saturday that he would not back down.
"Gone are the days when workers would sacrifice," Gilani said during a speech. "Now it's time for the leaders to sacrifice."
Most legal experts think the president would be in no immediate danger even if Gilani did ask Swiss authorities to reopen the case.
Last year, a Swiss prosecutor told the media that Geneva couldn't bring proceedings against Zardari because he has immunity as a head of state.
But the government may be concerned that the court may question the president's immunity if Gilani agrees to write the letter because of bad blood between Zardari and Chief Justice Iftikar Mohammad Chaudry, said Rizvi.
Zardari refused to reinstate Chaudry for many months after he was fired by former President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, despite having promised to do so. He was eventually forced to relent after public demonstrations.
Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a political science professor at Lahore University of Management Sciences, said the government's goal was to survive through at least the summer, when it would finish the next annual budget.
That would allow the ruling Pakistan People's Party to funnel dollars to the right places to improve its chances in national elections, which are scheduled for 2013 but which many expect could be called early in the fall.
It would also see them through Senate elections in March, which are expected to go well for the ruling party.
"They know elections are coming and would like to stay in power, so I think they are willing to sacrifice Gilani by not writing the letter," said Rais.
Some government supporters have speculated the country's powerful army has been the driving force behind the court's moves because it too wants to see Zardari out.
But no evidence has surfaced to support that allegation, and the court has taken on the army's intelligence service in a separate case slated to resume Monday.
The case centers on 11 suspected militants who were captured and held by the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI. An anti-terrorism court ordered them to be freed in 2010, but they disappeared from a jail near the capital, Islamabad. Their relatives have been fighting a legal battle to find them.
The court ordered the ISI to produce seven of the suspects on Monday, and to explain how four others died in mysterious circumstances over the past six months.
The case could have wide-ranging repercussions because the security services are alleged to have picked up hundreds of people over the years and held them without charges.
But it's unclear if the court has the power to hold the army — the strongest institution in the country — to account.