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Pakistan crisis: PM appears before top court in contempt case

Pakistan's prime minister has made a rare appearance before the Supreme Court in a bid to avoid being held in contempt for refusing to reopen a corruption case against the president.
Image: Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani (C) surrounded by security personnel and lawyers acknowledges the crowd as he leaves the Supreme Court
Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, center, leaves the Supreme Court in Islamabad on Thursday.Aamir Qureshi / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: news services

Pakistan's prime minister made a rare appearance before the Supreme Court Thursday in attempt to avoid being held in contempt for refusing to reopen an old corruption case against the president.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani told the court that he believes the president cannot being prosecuted because he enjoys immunity while in office.

The court launched contempt proceedings against Gilani earlier in the week for failing to obey a long-standing order to write a letter to Swiss authorities asking them to reopen a graft case against President Asif Ali Zardari dating back to the late 1990s.

"It is my conviction that he (Zardari) has complete immunity inside and outside the country," Gilani told the court. "In the constitution, there is complete immunity for the president. There is no doubt about that."

The immediate battle is about Gilani, but the larger political crisis is about Zardari and the fate of his government, the longest-running civilian administration in Pakistan's coup-marred history.

If Gilani is charged with contempt of court for failing to follow court orders, he could be disqualified from office and forced to resign.

That would further increase the pressure on the unpopular civilian government and the risk of instability in the nuclear-armed ally in America's war on militancy.

Thursday's adjournment did nothing to settle the issue, and was mainly to allow Gilani to explain his position.

After the hearing, a confident-looking Gilani appeared outside the court smiling and waving.

If found in contempt, Gilani could face up to six months in prison and be disqualified from holding office.

The court will resume hearing the case against Gilani on Feb. 1.

Gilani's legal troubles are the latest blow for the civilian administration which also faces pressure from the military over a mysterious memo seeking U.S. help to avert an alleged coup last year.

Gilani won a unanimous vote of confidence in parliament when he became prime minister nearly four years ago, and has been known as a peacemaker even among the ruling Pakistan People's Party's most bitter enemies. Unlike Zardari, he was seen as having smooth ties with the military before the latest turmoil.

But his diplomatic skills may not be enough to fend off both the Supreme Court and Pakistan's generals, who have ruled the country for more than half of its 64 years history through coups, and from behind the scenes.

"The fact is that it's not just the anger of the judges against the PM, it's the anger of the army against the PM as well," said Ayesha Siddiqa, a prominent defense analyst.