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26 May 2024

Pakistan court digs in on PM showdown


Pakistan's top court promised on Thursday to drop contempt charges against Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani if he obeys an order asking Switzerland to re-open corruption cases against the president.

The Supreme Court has summoned the embattled Gilani to appear next Monday to face indictment over the government's two-year refusal to ask Swiss authorities to re-open graft cases against President Asif Ali Zardari.

On Thursday, the court heard an appeal from Gilani, but only hardened its standoff with the weak government that could yet see Gilani convicted for contempt of court, facing disqualification from office and six months in jail.

After more than six hours in court, chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry adjourned the appeal, telling the prime minister's lawyer to conclude his arguments by 10:30 am (0530 GMT) on Friday.

But the eight-judge bench insisted that the government obey its order in 2009 to re-open corruption cases and write to authorities in Switzerland.

Zardari and his late wife, prime minister Benazir Bhutto, were suspected of using Swiss bank accounts to launder about ê12 million in alleged bribes paid by companies seeking customs inspection contracts in Pakistan in the 1990s.

"The prime minister should write the letter -- we will pass the order," Chaudhry told the court earlier in reference to the court dropping its summons order for Gilani to face indictment for contempt on Monday.

The Swiss shelved the cases in 2008, when Zardari became head of state, and a prosecutor in Switzerland has said it will be impossible to re-open them as long as he remains head of state and is immune from prosecution.

Members of the government accuse judges of plotting with the army to wage a witch-hunt against the prime minister and president.

Observers say that pressure from the courts could ultimately force early elections on an unpopular government, a year away from becoming the first in the history of Pakistan to complete an elected term in office.

In Pakistan the courts overturned in December 2009 a two-year political amnesty that had frozen the allegations against Zardari and other politicians.

But Gilani's lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan said the Swiss authorities had also closed the cases and that there was no third party to claim the funds.

Chaudhry said the court was running out of patience.

"You have to implement the judgement in any case," the judge said, addressing himself to Ahsan.

"You have to persuade the chief executive that this is court judgement and you have to implement it," Chaudhry insisted.

Gilani himself appeared before the Supreme Court on January 19, citing Zardari's immunity as explanation for his refusal to obey the court's order.

Legal experts say that Gilani can only avoid being charged by lodging a successful appeal, apologising or promising to write to the Swiss.

The president, so tainted by corruption allegations that his nickname is "Mr 10 Percent", has already spent 11 years in jail on charges ranging from corruption to murder.

He was never convicted and his supporters say that the charges were politically motivated.