Pakistani Prime Minister Faces Supreme Court

Posted January 19th, 2012 at 12:40 pm (UTC-5)
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A long-running political firestorm that threatens to unravel Pakistan's civilian government may be coming to a head.

The country's Supreme Court is giving Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani until early next month to satisfactorily explain why he has not re-opened a corruption case against President Asif Ali Zardari. If Mr. Gilani fails to convince the court, he could be found guilty of contempt and forced out of office.

Mr. Gilani told the court Thursday he has no plans to restart the investigation and that the president, as head of state, “has complete immunity inside and outside the country.”

Prosecutors accuse Mr. Zardari and his wife, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, of laundering millions of dollars through Swiss bank accounts. However, the initial case was dropped after a 2007 amnesty deal designed to promote national reconciliation.

The Supreme Court struck down the amnesty agreement two years later and has been pushing for the case against Mr. Zardari to be re-opened ever since. It said Thursday Mr. Gilani does not need to appear at the next hearing in person.

Security was tight Thursday outside the courthouse in Islamabad, where Zardari supporters and lawyers supporting the Supreme Court's justices traded barbs .

The Supreme Court's push to re-open corruption cases involving Zardari and thousands of other politicians is part on an ongoing struggle between the government and the judiciary. Tension has been particularly high between the court's chief justice and President Zardari, who claims the charges are politically motivated.

There are also concerns about Pakistan's powerful military, which has also been at odds with the government.

The most recent flare-up came after the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden last May. An unsigned memo leaked after the raid allegedly showed that Pakistan's civilian government asked for U.S. help in reining in the Pakistani military.

Just last week, Prime Minister Gilani accused army chief General Parvez Ashfaq Kayani and Inter-Services Intelligence head Lieutenant General Ahmad Shuja Pasha of acting unconstitutionally by making unilateral submissions to the ongoing inquiry.

In response, the military said Mr. Gilani's remarks would have “very serious ramifications” and “grievous consequences” for the country.

The army has ruled Pakistan for most of its existence since independence from Britain in 1947. There have been three military coups in Pakistan, and no civilian government has ever completed its term in office.