New Twists in Showdown Between Pakistan’s Top Court, PM

Posted February 2nd, 2012 at 11:15 am (UTC-5)
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Long-simmering political tensions are starting to boil again in Pakistan, where the country's highest court appears closer to forcing the prime minister from office.

The Supreme Court Thursday ordered Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to appear February 13 to face charges of contempt. If found guilty, Mr. Gilani could be removed and sent to prison.

The development is the latest in an ongoing battle between the court and the prime minister over the status of corruption cases dating back to the 1990s. Prosecutors accuse Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and others of laundering millions of dollars through Swiss bank accounts. Ms. Bhutto, President Zardari's wife, was assassinated in 2007.

Charges against President Zardari and the others were initially dropped after a 2007 amnesty agreement, but the court struck down the deal in 2009 and has been battling to reopen the cases ever since.

Prime Minister Gilani has refused to cooperate, arguing instead that Mr. Zardari has legal immunity while in office. But he told Parliament Thursday he respects the court and will appear for the February 13 hearing.

Earlier, Mr. Gilani's lawyer said he would urge his client to appeal the charges, which is possible under Pakistani law.

The outcome of the next hearing is being watched closely, amid rising tensions between the government and the military, which has ruled Pakistan for most of its existence since independence from Britain in 1947.

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.

Last month, 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.