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Pakistani high court pursues charges against prime minister

Tension intensifies between judiciary and government

FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images

Yousuf Raza Gilani faces contempt charges for failing to reopen a corruption inquiry into President Asif Ali Zardari.

ISLAMABAD - The simmering crisis between the government and judiciary flared yesterday when the Supreme Court announced it would pursue contempt charges against Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani for failing to reopen a corruption investigation into the finances of his boss, President Asif Ali Zardari.

The Supreme Court said it would start proceedings for contempt of court against Gilani on Feb. 13.

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If convicted, the prime minister faces up to six months in jail and possible disqualification from public office.

The court order was a significant escalation of long-simmering tensions between Pakistan’s judiciary and the government and threatened to plunge the country into fresh political turmoil as its leaders debate the contours of a new strategic relationship with the United States.

Since 2009, the Supreme Court, headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, has insisted that the government should write a letter to authorities in Switzerland, asking them to reopen an investigation into corruption allegations against Zardari stretching to the 1990s.

The government has responded with stalling tactics, using various ruses to dodge the order in court, while in public it has argued that Zardari has immunity from prosecution while in office.

But the court’s forbearance ended last month when it ordered Gilani to appear before the court under threat of contempt charges. Amid dramatic scenes Gilani turned up Jan. 19 and was represented by Aitzaz Ahsan, one of the country’s most famous lawyers.

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Tensions seemed to ease when Ahsan promised that Gilani was ready to debate the immunity issue in court - effectively conceding that the government was ready to resolve the case through legal means.

But that detente ended yesterday when Ahsan argued that the government simply could not write the Swiss letter, prompting the court to make good on its threats of contempt charges and in the process reviving a perilous institutional clash involving Pakistan’s top politicians, generals and judges.

The court drama comes just days after the other judicial crisis facing the government, involving accusations of treason and popularly known as Memogate, started to recede from the front pages of newspapers.

The main witness in that case, a US businessman of Pakistani origin, Mansoor Ijaz, failed to turn up in Pakistan to testify.

On Monday, a panel of judges allowed Husain Haqqani, the former ambassador to Washington who faces the gravest charges, to leave the country.

Ijaz claimed in a newspaper article in October that he had sent a secret memo to the Obama administration in May on behalf of the Zardari government, seeking US help in warding off a possible coup after the Pakistani military was humiliated by the US commando operation that killed Osama bin Laden. Ijaz later said Haqqani was behind the memo. Haqqani denied the accusation but was forced to step down.

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