ISLAMABAD _ Pakistan's Supreme Court on Thursday charged the prime minister with contempt of court for failing to pursue an old corruption case against his boss, the president, and ordered him to appear Feb. 13 in proceedings that could lead to him being jailed and disqualified from office.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani will be indicted over his refusal to follow court orders to ask Switzerland to reopen a dormant money-laundering case against President Asif Ali Zardari, who is also his party's leader.
A move to imprison the prime minister could topple Pakistan's civilian government or lead to intervention by the powerful military to enforce court orders. A conviction could bar Gilani from parliament for five years, effectively ending his tenure as prime minister.
The courts and the military appear determined to end the rule of the coalition government led by the Pakistan Peoples Party before it completes its term in February 2013, a struggle over power that has paralyzed the government and distracted it from other pressing issues, including the sinking economy and Pakistan's potential role in stabilizing Afghanistan.
Many expect the confrontation to lead to early elections later this year, but an outright coup is considered highly unlikely. Democracy was restored in 2008 from Pakistan's most recent period of military rule.
A separate court case against the government _ the so-called Memogate affair involving an alleged plot by Zardari's government to seek U.S. help reining in the Pakistani military _ fizzled last month after the star witness, American businessman Mansoor Ijaz, decided not to travel to Pakistan to testify, citing security fears. But the court has continued its pursuit of the Swiss case.
Since 2009, the activist Supreme Court has been trying to force the government to write to the Swiss authorities to restart the prosecution of Zardari, in a case dating back to the 1990s in which he allegedly laundered $60 million while his wife, Benazir Bhutto, was prime minister. As head of the government, Gilani is being held ultimately responsible for the failure to send the letter.
It's unclear whether Swiss authorities, even if asked, would reopen the case, and observers believe that it would be impossible to recover the money anyway.
Last month Gilani appeared before the court in a preliminary hearing and told the judges that he hadn't written the letter because the president, as head of state, was shielded by immunity from prosecution "inside and outside the country" _ a position that appears to be backed by Pakistan's constitution and international law.
Nevertheless, after hearing arguments from Gilani's defense lawyer, the court decided Thursday to proceed with a case against him.
"After the preliminary hearing, we are satisfied that ... there is a case for further proceeding into the matter," a court order said.
Officials of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party insist that they won't write the letter. But Gilani, speaking in parliament Thursday, said that he would appear again before the court as required.
"Everybody should follow the constitution of Pakistan," Gilani said. "I respect the courts."
Switzerland dropped the case against Zardari in 2008 following a request from Zardari's government. Gilani's lawyer, Aitzaz Ahsan, speaking after the hearing, said: "Writing the letter is not appropriate as all the proceedings in Switzerland have ended."
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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