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Pakistani court files contempt notice against second prime minister

Lawyers in Pakistan expect that Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, the prime minister, will be charged with contempt of court, opening the way for the court to remove him from office.

Omar Sobhani/Reuters

Lawyers in Pakistan expect that Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, the prime minister, will be charged with contempt of court, opening the way for the court to remove him from office.

ISLAMABAD — The Supreme Court issued a contempt-of-court notice against Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf on Wednesday, signaling what appeared to be a rerun of judicial proceedings that saw his predecessor ousted from office in June.

A five-member bench ordered Ashraf to appear before the court on Aug. 27 to explain why his government has refused to revive a corruption investigation into President Asif Ali Zardari’s finances in Switzerland.

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The order was identical to one issued against the previous prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, who was fired by the court on June 19.

The move Wednesday was the latest twist in an eight-month battle between the Supreme Court and Zardari’s government. Senior lawyers said Ashraf is now likely to be charged with contempt of court, opening the way for his ouster from office as early as next month.

‘‘It is a step in the same direction,’’ said Salman Akram Raja, a Supreme Court lawyer. ‘‘The court has to follow the same course. There is nothing else that it can do.’’

Analysts said Ashraf’s dismissal would be unlikely to topple Zardari’s government, which enjoys a majority in Parliament, but would trigger fresh political turmoil that might move up elections, which are to take place by June 2013.

The court wants the government to write to the Swiss authorities, prompting them to reopen a long-dormant investigation into Zardari’s finances dating to the 1990s. Officials from the governing party maintain that Zardari, as head of state, enjoys immunity from prosecution.

At the heart of the argument is a bitter three-year rivalry between Zardari and Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. There is little sign of either side backing down.

The notice issued Wednesday orders Ashraf, a former minister for water and power, to explain why he should not be charged with contempt — a formality that usually precedes charges.

The justices refused a government request to delay the proceedings until September.

Senior lawyers said the court was likely to put Ashraf on trial soon, and to reach a decision far more rapidly than it did with Gilani, whose fate hung in the balance for several months.

Raja, the lawyer, said the government could try to stall, but ‘‘short of writing to the Swiss officials, as has been directed by the court, such tactics will just play out in a week or two.’’

Government supporters accuse the court of engaging in a partisan witch hunt driven by the rivalry between Chaudhry and Zardari. Such criticism has found greater resonance in recent weeks, even among formerly staunch supporters of the court’s authority.

In an interview with the BBC broadcast Tuesday, Aitzaz Ahsan, one of the country’s most prominent lawyers, said the court had become ‘‘too powerful.’’

‘‘It has at times overstepped its limits,’’ he said, adding later that ‘‘the activism of the court is one-sided and is not evenhanded.’’

Shamila N. Chaudhary of the Eurasia Group, a consulting firm, said while Ashraf’s ouster would not bring down the government, ‘‘it would still leave Zardari vulnerable to other Supreme Court actions such as the creation of an ‘independent’ commission that could write the Swiss letter itself.’’

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