(Adds comment from former judge in third paragraph.)
Feb. 13 (Bloomberg) -- Pakistan’s Supreme Court charged Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani with contempt for failing to reopen corruption investigations against the president, and will begin a trial that threatens to force him from office.
Hearings were adjourned till Feb. 22, when the prosecution will record its evidence. Aitzaz Ahsan, Gilani’s lawyer, has argued that the constitution and international conventions grant President Asif Ali Zardari immunity, and that as a result the premier, who today appeared before top judges for the second time in a month, can’t be held in contempt of court.
“The case is likely to take two weeks from the date of the next hearing to be concluded,” Nasira Iqbal, a retired judge said by phone from Lahore. If Gilani complies with the “court’s orders and then asks for mercy, he may be granted that. Otherwise, he may be convicted and will have to leave the job and face the consequences.”
Judges may hand Gilani a six-month term in jail and disqualify him from holding the National Assembly seat he needs to remain as premier if he’s found guilty of contempt. The court Feb. 10 rejected Gilani’s review plea seeking to end contempt proceedings over his refusal to ask Swiss authorities to pursue decades-old graft investigations involving Zardari.
Gilani’s indictment, the first time a prime minister has been charged with contempt of the apex court in Pakistan’s history, intensifies a struggle between the elected government and senior judges.
A separate court probe into claims Zardari sought U.S. help in May to ward off a feared coup by an army humiliated by the killing of Osama bin Laden north of Islamabad has slowed as the key witness refused to travel to Pakistan, citing security concerns. That case had triggered the biggest confrontation between civilian and military leaders since the end of army rule in 2008.
While the court’s pursuit of Gilani is unlikely to trigger the collapse of his Pakistan People’s Party-led government it will complicate the party’s strategy for elections to the upper house of parliament, or senate, expected next month, Eurasia Group’s Shamila Chaudhary said in an e-mailed analysis Feb. 10.
Judges issued a contempt notice to Gilani on Jan. 16 after saying he violated his oath of office by failing to re-open graft probes against Zardari and others that former military ruler Pervez Musharraf suspended in 2007 in an amnesty.
In an interview with Al Jazeera broadcast yesterday, Gilani said charges against Zardari, who has never been found guilty of corruption by a court, were politically motivated.
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.
Bhutto and Zardari collected and laundered bribes totaling $11.7 million for awarding customs inspection contracts to Swiss companies in 1994, an investigating magistrate in Geneva recorded in 2003. The couple were given a six-month suspended prison sentence the same year by a Swiss judge. That sentence was canceled by a Swiss tribunal in 2004 after Bhutto appealed. New bribery charges were then brought, the Swiss newspaper Le Temps reported.
Zardari has denied all charges against him. Bhutto was killed at a political rally in 2007.
--Editors: Mark Williams, Naween Mangi
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