ISLAMABAD — Extending a battle of wills between Pakistan's government and its judiciary, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani told the Supreme Court on Thursday that he wouldn't bow to a court order targeting the country's president.
Judges had hauled Gilani before the court on contempt proceedings after his government persistently ignored court orders to petition Swiss authorities to reopen a long-dormant money-laundering case against Gilani's boss, President Asif Ali Zardari.
Shrugging off suggestions from some observers that he'd apologize or offer to resign, Gilani came out fighting on behalf of Zardari, arguing that the president has constitutional immunity from prosecution and making it clear that he wouldn't ask Switzerland to reopen the case.
The president "has complete immunity inside and outside the country,” Gilani told the court, adding, "There is no doubt about it.”
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The rare court appearance by a sitting prime minister was the latest dramatic turn in a confrontation that's pitted Pakistan's civilian government, a U.S. ally, against the courts and the powerful military establishment. Many observers think that the judges _ directly or indirectly backed by the military _ are determined to find a way to dismiss the government or at least oust Zardari, with whom they've clashed repeatedly.
The court adjourned the case until Feb. 1, when Gilani's lawyer is expected to argue his case for presidential immunity. The delay _ and the fact that the judges didn't try to jail Gilani for contempt of court, which could disqualify him from office _ appeared to lower tensions somewhat in a high-stakes battle that's threatened to bring down the government of Zardari's Pakistan Peoples Party.
At the same time, the government showed no sign of backing down from its argument. While the prime minister’s tone in court was characteristically soft and polite as he said he could “never think of ridiculing or defaming the court,” his message was uncompromising.
Under Pakistan’s political system, the prime minister runs the government, and the position of the president is supposedly ceremonial, as the head of state. But this government is controlled by Zardari, who's never been able to shake off a long-standing reputation for corruption.
The military privately questions his patriotism.
Standing before the judges Thursday in a dark suit, Gilani pointed to the other leaders of his coalition government, who sat in a row behind him, saying they were all present “to show respect to the court."
Earlier, he'd added to the theater of the occasion by driving to the court _ a short distance from his official residence _ with his lawyer, Aitzaz Ahsan, in the passenger seat, a move seemingly designed to show that he was appearing humbly before the judges. In the courtroom, however, he reminded the judiciary that it was pursuing charges against an elected leader.
"I’m the longest-serving democratically elected prime minister in the history of Pakistan," he said.
The Supreme Court, unable to reinitiate corruption cases against the president in Pakistan, has instead pursued a case in which Zardari is accused of laundering $60 million in Switzerland, dating to the 1990s, when his late wife, Benazir Bhutto, was the prime minister. The government was able to get Swiss authorities to drop the case and hand over boxes of evidence, which then reportedly made their way to the Pakistani Embassy in London, where a Zardari party loyalist is the ambassador.
Ahsan, Gilani's lawyer, told the court that the prime minister found its order to petition Swiss authorities to reopen the case “impossible to perform” because of the "bona fide" legal advice he'd received that the president was immune from prosecution. Article 248 of the Pakistani Constitution says that the president and other top officials, including the prime minister, "shall not be answerable to any court for the exercise of powers and performance of functions of their respective offices."
“The letter shall be written the day that Asif Ali Zardari is no longer president,” Ahsan said.
Since 2009, the Supreme Court has been trying to force the government to write to the Swiss authorities over the issue, only to be stonewalled. The court could rule that because the Swiss case doesn't relate to Zardari's actions while he's been president, the immunity provision doesn’t apply.
The government also faces another incendiary court case, the so-called Memogate scandal, in which its former U.S. ambassador is accused of conspiring with Washington against Pakistan’s armed forces. The main accuser in that case, American businessman Mansoor Ijaz, who failed to appear in court Monday, now is due to testify next week.
Zardari's party thinks that even if it's thrown out of office, its best strategy is to go down fighting so that it can claim the mantle of martyr for democracy and victim of the military and judicial establishment.
Separately, a spokesman for Pakistan’s former military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, said Musharraf's planned return to the country had been postponed indefinitely. The former leader, who's been in exile in London and Dubai, had announced that he'd return by the end of this month. The government had warned that if he did, he faced possible arrest on outstanding warrants, including in connection with the 2006 death of a separatist leader in the western province of Baluchistan.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.) MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
For more coverage visit McClatchy's Afghanistan and Pakistan page.