(Updates with analyst comment in sixth paragraph.)
Jan. 16 (Bloomberg) -- Pakistan’s Supreme Court began contempt of court proceedings against Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani for failing to obey its order to pursue corruption charges against President Asif Ali Zardari, a step that may lead to Gilani’s dismissal.
The court ordered Gilani to appear before it Jan. 19, Law Minister Mola Bux Chandio told reporters in Islamabad. A panel of justices last week said Gilani violated his oath of office by not resuming the graft investigations, which former military ruler Pervez Musharraf suspended in a 2007 decree that the court later revoked.
The contempt notice “is a very serious warning and now the prime minister must come up with his defense,” Munir A. Malik, a former president of the Supreme Court Bar Association of Pakistan said in a phone interview. “If the court convicts Gilani, it might warn him or hand down a sentence” that could force his removal from office, Malik said.
The ruling came as a second judicial panel resumed hearings on an alleged Zardari administration request in May for U.S. aid against a possible coup, a claim that has triggered the biggest confrontation between Pakistan’s generals and elected leaders since army rule ended four years ago. The showdown complicates U.S. efforts to restore a strained relationship with Pakistan that’s key to its bid to stabilize Afghanistan before a 2014 troop withdrawal.
The court hearings have again focused the spotlight on Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who four years ago precipitated the downfall of General Pervez Musharraf and helped return the country to elected government.
“By reviving the corruption cases just as the military wants to see Zardari leave office, Chaudhry may be playing into the hands of the army establishment,” said Ishtiaq Ahmed, a Pakistani political science professor at Oxford University in the U.K. “The confrontation risks undermining democracy.”
Supreme Court spokesman Faqir Hussain didn’t answer calls to his office.
About 14 percent of 2,700 Pakistanis surveyed said the court is overstepping its mandate, while 62 percent said it was acting properly, Islamabad-based Gallup Pakistan said in a Jan. 12 poll that had a margin of error of 2 to 3 percent.
Chaudhry’s court is taking “a fair line” on the issues coming before it, and has been forced to act by Zardari’s failures to govern, said Wajihuddin Ahmed, who quit as a Supreme Court judge rather than accept Musharraf’s 1999 coup.
Gilani will obey the court’s order to appear on Jan. 19, Qamar Zaman Kaira, a spokesman for the ruling Pakistan People’s Party, told reporters in televised comments.
‘Mr. 10 Percent’
Zardari will discuss the ruling with top leaders of the People’s party, his spokesman Farhatullah Babar said. The party says that as president Zardari is immune from prosecution.
“This is no small matter and we will act in accordance with the law,” the law minister, Chandio, told reporters.
Pakistani newspapers and critics of Zardari nicknamed him “Mr. 10 Percent” in the 1990s, because of the corruption cases against him. He has denied the charges and has never been found guilty by the courts.
While Chaudhry is not serving on the Supreme Court bench considering the graft investigations, he appoints all such panels. He headed the bench that chose the commission of judges investigating the alleged memo to the U.S.
After Musharraf named Chaudhry chief justice in 2005, the judge won public support with rulings that reversed the courts’ historic subservience to Pakistan’s three military regimes. When Chaudhry in 2007 resisted two attempts by Musharraf to oust him, protesters took to the streets, showered flower petals on the judge’s car and demanded an end to army rule.
Negotiating with political parties to stay on as a civilian president, the general decreed an amnesty to halt corruption probes against 8,000 politicians and officials, including Zardari and his wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
Chaudhry’s court invalidated the order and was considering a challenge to Musharraf’s eligibility as president when the general declared emergency rule and sent troops to the Supreme Court to force Chaudhry from office.
Musharraf bowed to public demands for elections that were won by Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party in the wake of her December 2007 assassination. The new parliament moved to impeach Musharraf in 2008, forcing him to resign, and elected Zardari. Zardari reneged on a promise to restore Chaudhry, relenting only when the judge’s supporters massed in 2009 to march on Islamabad.
Chaudhry’s court risks “over-reach” in pressing the government to resume the corruption investigations because some of them were politically motivated, said Ayesha Tammy Haq, an Islamabad-based lawyer who helped organize the 2007 protests that backed Chaudhry. The court could have left lawmakers and prosecutors to decide how to reopen cases, she said.
Chaudhry and his court Dec. 30 backed the army’s call for a probe into a letter revealed by Pakistani-American businessman Mansoor Ijaz. The memo sought U.S. help to prevent a feared coup by Pakistani army officers angered by the American raid into their country that killed Osama bin Laden.
Ijaz says the note was dictated by Husain Haqqani, then Zardari’s envoy to Washington, which Haqqani denies. U.S. officials said they dismissed the note as not credible.
Gilani announced a parliamentary investigation of the memo and opposed the inquiry by the Supreme Court. On Dec. 22, he warned of a conspiracy to oust his administration by a “state within a state,” a reference to the army. A Jan. 11 army statement warned of “grievous consequences” after Gilani criticized the military for overstepping its authority by directly submitting a response in the case directly to the court rather than via his cabinet.
--With assistance from James Rupert in New Delhi. Editors: Mark Williams, Peter Hirschberg
To contact the reporter on this story: Haris Anwar in Islamabad at firstname.lastname@example.org; To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peter Hirschberg in Hong Kong at email@example.com.