Top court to indict Pakistan PM Gilani
ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s Supreme Court decided on Thursday to charge Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani with contempt for his failure to reopen a case of money-laundering against President Asif Ali Zardari. The court summoned the prime minister on February 13 for formal indictment.
By Afzal Khan
Published: Sat 4 Feb 2012, 12:47 AM
Last updated: Tue 19 May 2020, 5:33 PM
The unprecedented court order involving the country’s chief executive plunged the nation into fresh political crisis amid the ongoing high-profile memo scam that had brought the fragile democratic government to a dangerous face-off with the powerful military.
If convicted, Gilani could face six months in prison and the loss of his prime ministerial post. He will face disqualification from holding the office, bringing down the present government following a legal procedure that would involve National Assembly speaker and later the Election Commission.
“After the preliminary hearing, we are satisfied that prima facie there is enough case for further proceeding,” the bench ordered after the hearing.
“The case is adjourned until February 13 for the framing of charges. The prime minister will be present in person,” a brief order by a seven-member bench of the court led by Justice Nasrul Mulk, said after Gilani’s counsel and eminent jurist Chaudhry Ahsan concluded his arguments.
The court took the decision following the refual of the prime minister to implement its order and write letter to Swiss authorities for reopening the corruption case against Zardari on the plea that he enjoys constitutional immunity.
Gilani is the first top official in country’s history facing indictment on contempt charges. In 1997, the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif was also issued contempt notice but was let off the hook when he personally tendered his apology. ?
Ahsan argued that Gilani did not commit any contempt by not complying with court’s order on writing letter to Swiss authorities. He said the prime minister acted on legal advice that Zardari enjoyed immunity from any criminal proceedings within or abroad. His intention were bonafide with no intention of bringing the court to contempt or ridicule.
After charges are formally framed, a case will be initiated that may linger for weeks. If convicted,
Ahsan said the prime minister has the option to appeal within a month. “He has the constitutional, legal right to appeal… it would be my recommendation to my client to appeal. He will then decide.”
Legal experts said that could avoid being charged by offering apology to the court on February 13 though some others say that he has already forgone that possibility. But the court can always take a lenient view and drop the charges. “On February 13, the charges will be read out to him. He will have to admit or deny. If he admits and apologises, the court can dispose of the case,” former Supreme Court judge Tariq Mahmood said. “The court does not unnecessarily punish people in contempt cases. It wants its dignity and decorum maintained. It all depends on how the judges proceed,” he said.
In any case he will have to write the letter directed by the court.
Ahsan only perfunctorily touched the question of presidential immunity but the court stopped short of ruling whether Zardari enjoyed such immunity.
The legal tussle stems from corruption cases thrown out in 2007 by the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), a controversial amnesty law passed under former military ruler Pervez Musharraf.
In staggering exchanges in court, the judges seemed determined to force the prime minister to write to the Swiss, although the Swiss themselves have said there is no case as long as Zardari is head of state.
“Suppose we discharge the (contempt) notice and withdraw the proceeding, what will you do? Will you write a letter or not?” Judge Sarmad Jalali asked Ahsan at one point.
Ahsan said that first the contempt notice had to be discharged.
“If you order writing the letter, it will be carried. But you have to decide on the contempt issue. I seek discharge of the notice on merit and I will not give any commitment on conditional discharge of the notice.”
Judge Asif Saeed Khosa also enquired why the letter had not been written. “This is the court’s order and there is clear direction from the court.”
Ahsan argued that the cases in Switzerland have been disposed off.
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.
President Zardari has taken a tough stance that writing letter to Swiss authorities would amount to “trial of Benazir Bhutto’s grave” because she too is implicated in the money laundering case. If Gilani decides to contest the charge it would further prolong political crisis in the country.