Pak passes bill exempting PM from contempt

Pakistani lawmakers have passed a bill that would exempt senior government ministers from contempt of court proceedings, a move seen as a bid to save the new prime minister from disqualification.

The Supreme Court has given Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf until Thursday to indicate whether he will obey an order to ask Swiss authorities to reopen multimillion dollar corruption cases against the president.

The court dismissed Yousuf Raza Gilani as prime minister on June 19 after convicting him of contempt in April for refusing to reopen the cases against President Asif Ali Zardari.

The bill passed by the lower house of the Pakistani parliament on Monday night said senior government figures including the president, prime minister and ministers could not be found guilty of contempt for acts performed as part of their job.

The bill must be passed by the Upper House and signed off by the president before it becomes law.

The main opposition party Pakistan Muslim League-N headed by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif boycotted the proceedings.

Ashraf defended the bill, saying it would not obstruct anyone from doing their duties, nor would it make anyone a "holy cow".

Law minister Farooq H Naek, who introduced the bill, said confusion in the existing contempt law had been removed and insisted the amendment was not made in haste.

Minister for information Qamar Zaman Kaira said the move would help remove ambiguities in the existing contempt law.

Talking to reporters outside parliament house, he said: "The powers of the superior judiciary have not been curtailed but the confusion in the power of the Supreme Court has been removed. The Supreme Court still enjoys immense power."

The allegations against Zardari date back to the 1990s, when he and his late wife, late premier Benazir Bhutto, are suspected of using Swiss bank accounts to launder $12 million allegedly paid in bribes by companies seeking customs inspection contracts.

The Swiss shelved the cases in 2008 when Zardari became president and the government insists the president has full immunity as head of state.

But in 2009 the Supreme Court overturned a political amnesty that had frozen investigations into the president and other politicians, ordering that the cases be reopened.

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