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Asia-pacific

Pakistani premier defends against contempt of court charges

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2012-01-19

Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani defended himself Thursday against contempt of court charges involving his alleged refusal to reopen corruption probes into the country's president, who the ruling party says is immune from prosecution.

AFP - Pakistan's embattled prime minister Thursday defended himself against contempt charges before the Supreme Court, refusing to back down in a case that could see him disqualified from office if convicted.

It is only the second time that Pakistan's highest court has initiated contempt proceedings against a sitting prime minister, plunging the weak government deeper into a crisis that could force early elections within months.

With the government also under enormous pressure from the army and judiciary over a memo asking Washington to prevent a feared coup last May, the administration is widely believed to be staggering on its last legs.

The turmoil is profound that it has overshadowed a drastic deterioration in relations with the United States that plummeted disastrously in 2011 over a series of crises, largely America's covert killing of Osama bin Laden on May 2.

The court summoned Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to explain his refusal to ask Switzerland to re-open graft cases against the president, then adjourned until February 1 and conceded that premier would not have to appear next time.

Gilani spoke of his respect for the judiciary but did not apologise or deviate from his long-standing position that Asif Ali Zardari enjoys immunity from prosecution as head of state.

"I have come today to show my respect to this court," Gilani told the seven judges in the packed court room. "It will not give a good message to proceed against a president who is elected by a two-thirds majority."

"There is complete immunity for heads of state everywhere," Gilani stressed.

Outside, he smiled and waving to the phalanx of television cameras as police and paramilitary troops put on a rigorous show of security.

But unless the prime minister finds a way of satisfying the court, he could be convicted, jailed for up to six months and disqualified from public office.

His lawyer, Aitzaz Ahsan, has argued that the government should write to the Swiss authorities, but on Thursday appeared to harden his stance.

"Bowing before them, I will God willing try to satisfy the court that there is complete immunity in this matter," Ahsan told reporters.

In court, he told the judges he needed time to prepare and the hearing was adjourned until February 1.

Ahsan is hugely respected for his role in forcing the government to reinstate independent judges in March 2009 and as such his appointment was seen as a conciliatory gesture from the prime minister's camp.

The Supreme Court judges have listed six options, which include disqualifying the prime minister and president "for violating oaths", contempt proceedings against Gilani or the president raising "constitutional immunity".

Political analyst Imtiaz Gul said the government was locked into a potentially damaging stand off on immunity when the court resumes.

"The court seems fixated on the cases being reopened, so you get the sense they're not going to accept the government's arguments on immunity for the president and that's why they're showing restraint (now)," he told AFP.

"If the courts refuse to give him immunity, that means aggravating a political crisis," he added.

Outside court, dozens of lawyers protested against the president and prime minister, accusing them of bypassing the law. Gilani was accompanied by senior cabinet ministers and political allies in a show of support.

The allegations against Zardari were frozen by a political amnesty imposed in 2007, which the courts overturned in late 2009.

Tainted by corruption allegations, Zardari is nicknamed "Mr 10 Percent" and spent 11 years in jail on charges ranging from corruption to murder, although his supporters point out that he was never convicted.

Zardari and his late wife, prime minister Benazir Bhutto, were suspected of using Swiss bank accounts to launder about $12 million in alleged bribes paid by companies seeking customs inspection contracts in Pakistan in the 1990s.

A Swiss prosecutor has since said it would be "impossible" to reopen the case against Zardari since he benefits from immunity as a head of state.

Zardari is also at risk over the controversial May 10 memo that sought US assistance to curb the powerful military.

His ambassador to Washington, Husain Haqqani, was forced to resign amid allegations that Zardari was also aware of the note.
 

Date created : 2012-01-19

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