Bloomberg News

Pakistani Court Postpones Gilani Case to Hear Immunity Argument

January 19, 2012

Jan. 19 (Bloomberg) -- Pakistan’s Supreme Court postponed until Feb. 1 a contempt of court hearing against Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani that could result in his dismissal.

Gilani, who appeared before the court, didn’t defy a court order to pursue corruption cases against President Asif Ali Zardari because Zardari is legally immune from prosecution, defense lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan said. The judges sought a commitment from Ahsan that the prime minister will obey the order if the court rules that Zardari has no immunity.

Today’s adjournment averted an immediate escalation of a months-old struggle between the Zardari administration, the court and the armed forces. The top issued a contempt notice to Gilani on Jan. 16 after saying he violated his oath of office by failing to re-open graft investigations that former military ruler Pervez Musharraf suspended in 2007.

“It is a historic day for justice and law because the prime minister’s appearance shows he accepts the majesty of the court,” Ahsan told reporters outside the court. “I will satisfy the court that immunity is full and complete” for Zardari, he said.

The legal arguments hinge on Article 248 of Pakistan’s constitution, which says that “no criminal proceedings whatsoever shall be instituted or continued against the president.” If found guilty of contempt, Gilani may be forced to step down as prime minister.

Jan. 24 Hearing

The government faces a separate Jan. 24 hearing by judges investigating an alleged Zardari administration request in May for U.S. assistance against a possible military coup. The claim 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 is key to its bid to stabilize Afghanistan before a planned troop withdrawal in 2014.

“These legal and political challenges aren’t going to end soon for this government,” Farrukh Saleem, an independent political analyst in Islamabad, said in a phone interview. “Different state organs are trying to assert their authority. The executive has the weakest position because it has not been able to deliver and people are looking for a change.”

Gilani drove his own car the several hundred yards from his official residence to the court, before walking in through the common litigants’ entrance past journalists, lawyers and policemen. Ahsan, his lawyer, has had close ties to Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. Ahsan served as Chaudhry’s legal counsel and led public protests on the judge’s behalf in 2007 when Musharraf suspended him.

‘Foreign Fire’

“I can’t think of not obeying the order of this court,” Gilani told judges in a statement. “What’s been advised to me is that he has complete immunity inside and outside Pakistan,” he said in reference to Zardari.

The Supreme Court in 2009 ordered the government to formally ask Swiss authorities to revive cases there against Zardari and his assassinated wife former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. A judge in Geneva charged Zardari and Bhutto in 2004 with accepting bribes to award contracts to companies, including SGS Societe Generale de Surveillance Holding SA, the Swiss newspaper Le Temps reported at the time.

Zardari has denied all charges against him and has never been found guilty by a court.

Ahsan said the court’s order in the Swiss case is not valid. “No Pakistani authority can push the president into a foreign fire,” he said.

--With assistance from Khurrum Anis in Karachi. Editors: Mark Williams, Nicholas Wadhams

To contact the reporter on this story: Haris Anwar in Islamabad at hanwar2@bloomberg.net; James Rupert in New Delhi at jrupert3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peter Hirschberg in Hong Kong at phirschberg@bloomberg.net.


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