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Pakistan prime minister Gilani refuses to give in to court order - The Guardian

Written By Ivan Kolev on Thursday, January 19, 2012 | 6:42 PM

Pakistan prime minister arrives at court

Pakistan's prime minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani, waves to supporters as he arrives at the supreme court in Islamabad. Photograph: T Mughal/EPA

Pakistan's prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, has appeared before judges, in the battle of wills between the government and the judiciary, and refused to accept court orders targeting the president.

The supreme court had called Gilani before it on contempt of court proceedings after the Islamabad government persistently ignored court orders to write to Swiss authorities and ask for a dormant money laundering case to be reopened against President Asif Ali Zardari.

It had been suggested that Gilani might apologise to the court, or even offer his resignation, but he came out fighting on behalf of the president.

"He has complete immunity inside and outside the country," Gilani told the court on Thursday, making clear he would not write the letter.

"In the constitution, there is complete immunity for the president. There is no doubt about it."

Gilani's tone was characteristically soft and polite as he said that he could "never think of ridiculing or defaming the court", but the message was uncompromising.

The stakes are high. Gilani risks being convicted of contempt of court, which could mean jail and disqualification from office. Zardari, leader of the ruling Pakistan Peoples party, would also be barred from office if convicted of a crime.

Standing before the judges in a dark suit, Gilani pointed to other leaders of his coalition government, sitting in a row behind him, and said they were all present to show respect to the court.

In a move seemingly designed to show that he was appearing humbly before the judges, Gilani drove the short distance from his official residence to the court with his lawyer, the legal heavyweight Aitzaz Ahsan, in the passenger seat.

In court however, he reminded the judiciary that they were proceeding against an elected leader. "I'm the longest serving democratically elected prime minister in the history of Pakistan," he said.

The supreme court, unable to reinitiate corruption cases against the president inside Pakistan, have pursued a case involving allegations of laundering $60m in Switzerland dating back to the 1990s when Zardari's wife, Benazir Bhutto, was prime minister. The Swiss authorities dropped the investigation and handed over the boxes of evidence, which then reportedly made their way to the Pakistani embassy in London, where a PPP loyalist is the ambassador.

Ahsan told the court that the prime minister found the order to write the letter asking for the case to be reopened impossible to perform because of bona fide legal advice he had received that the president was immune from prosecution.

"The letter shall be written the day that Asif Ali Zardari is no longer president," Ahsan told the court.

The supreme court has been trying to force the government to write to the Swiss authorities since 2009 only to be stone-walled, leading the judges to start contempt proceedings against the prime mister. The government had not explained to the court before Thursday why it would not write the letter. The case was adjourned until 1 February.

Pakistan's government is locked in a confrontation with the courts and the military, and many believe the judges are determined to find a way to dismiss the government, or at least Zardari. It is widely believed that the powerful military is supporting the court, directly or indirectly.

The government is also facing allegations that its former US ambassador conspired with Washington against Pakistan's armed forces. The main accuser, the American businessman Mansoor Ijaz, failed to appear at a court hearing on Monday and is due to testify next week.

The PPP believes that if it is thrown out of office its best strategy is to go down fighting so that it can claim to be martyrs for democracy and victims of the Pakistani establishment.

It emerged on Thursday that Pakistan's former military ruler Pervez Musharraf, who had announced that he would return by the end of January from exile in London and Dubai, was no longer coming. Musharraf's spokesman said that conditions were not right. The government has warned that he faces outstanding arrest warrants, including over the death of a separatist leader in the western province of Baluchistan in 2006.

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