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Pakistani PM faces contempt charge

Posted by Ram Kumar Shrestha on February 12, 2012

Yousaf Raza Gilani could be stripped of office and imprisoned if convicted by the country’s supreme court

Yousaf Raza Gilani

Yousaf Raza Gilani, Pakistan’s prime minister. Photograph: Anjum Naveed/AP

Pakistan‘s prime minister will face a contempt of court charge on Monday that could see him stripped of his office and jailed, triggering renewed political turmoil. Yousaf Raza Gilani, who after nearly four years in power is the longest serving prime minister in Pakistan’s 64-year history, has been summoned before the country’s supreme court to explain why he has not sent a letter to Swiss authorities asking them to reopen a graft inquiry against Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari. Both belong to the ruling Pakistan’s People’s party (PPP). In an interview with al-Jazeera television broadcast (sun)on Sunday, Gilani said he would resign if convicted though he “did not think that would happen”.

The confrontation is the latest of a series of bruising clashes between the elected government of Pakistan and the senior judiciary that come against a background of a broader struggle for power involving the country’s powerful military. In one recent incident Gilani told an audience that no “state within a state” could exist in Pakistan – a clear reference to the military – and spoke of “conspiracies … being hatched to pack up an elected government.”

Though anxiety about an immediate army-led coup has now largely dissipated, senior military officers’ dislike for Zardari and his government remains very clear. If Gilani refuses to go to jail in the event of a custodial sentence, the army could potentially step in to enforce the court’s orders. Though the government has indicated it might call early elections, its full parliamentary term will not expire until next year. At his last court appearance Gilani argued that he had not written the letter to the Swiss authorities because the president enjoyed immunity from prosecution “inside and outside the country”.

Zardari, who took the helm of the PPP in the aftermath of the assassination of his wife, the then PPP leader Benazir Bhutto, by Islamists in December 2007, has long been dogged by corruption allegations. The Swiss inquiry dates back to the 1990s. Osama Siddique, a law professor in Lahore, said that though the court’s legal position was strong the issue was “not a narrow legal one”. “It is part of an ongoing war of attrition between the government and the court. There has been an element of selectivity in the issues which the court has taken up and some credibility to the argument that there is a connection between the security forces and the court,” Siddique said.

Supporters of the government, voted into power in 2008, point to the affair known as memogate as evidence of the supreme court’s bias. This involved a note which the Pakistani ambassador to Washington, a close associate of Zardari, was supposed to have passed to senior US military commanders in the aftermath of the US special forces’ raid within Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden in May last year.

The memo allegedly requested US help to roll back military influence and defend the elected government in Islamabad against a possible coup. The supreme court, led by a flamboyant activist judge called Iftikar Chaudhry, took up the case with alacrity.

It fell apart, however, when the main witness, a Pakistani-American businessman, refused to testify. Some have accused the judges of co-operating with senior military officers to remove the government by constitutional means.

The PPP-led coalition government is broadly seen to have failed to tackle any of Pakistan’s deep problems. These include rampant inflation, a chronic lack of electricity, continuing extremist violence and endemic graft. The hard line taken by the supreme court has some resonance with many.

“I have to work all night to get enough money to pay my wife’s hospital bills,” said Suleiman Mahmud, a taxi driver in Islamabad. “These robbers are sitting in parliament and in the president’s house and they have done nothing for me or my family. It’s good that someone is holding them to account.”

Siddique, the law professor, said that Chaudhry, the chief justice, could himself be criticised for failing to tackle graft and a range of other deep structural problems troubling a barely functioning judicial system.

The supreme court’s actions could also be seen as undermining parliament, Siddique said. The contempt case comes at a difficult time for the west. A senior American general will arrive this week seeking to improve relations with Pakistan badly damaged in the last year by a series of incidents including the raid to kill Bin Laden, the shooting of two Pakistanis by a CIA agent in the western city of Lahore and a gun battle on the border with Afghanistan in which 26 Pakistani soldiers were killed by Nato air strikes.



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