Prime Minister Gilani, surrounded by security personnel and lawyers,… (Aamir Qureshi / AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan — Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani appeared Thursday before a Supreme Court panel to defend himself in contempt-of-court proceedings, staving off an immediate ruling in a high-stakes case that could lead to his ouster and jeopardize his party's hold on government.
The high court initiated contempt proceedings against Gilani this week, contending that he had deliberately ignored its frequent demands to pursue long-standing corruption allegations against his boss, President Asif Ali Zardari. The case, involving a money laundering charge in Switzerland against Zardari and his late wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was dropped by Swiss authorities at the Pakistani government's request in 2008.
Since 2009, Pakistan's high court has repeatedly ordered the government to ask Swiss authorities to reopen the case against Zardari. Gilani and government lawyers have maintained that they cannot do so because as president, Zardari has constitutional immunity, which shields him from prosecution.
In issuing its ruling this week, the high court ordered Gilani to appear and explain why he has not complied with its requests. The prime minister's appearance in court gripped the nation, in part because of what was at stake: If convicted of contempt, Gilani would be disqualified from office and could be sentenced to up to six months in jail.
A conviction of Zardari's prime minister would also deal a severe blow to the ruling Pakistan People's Party at a time when it finds itself under siege from the court, the country's powerful military and opposition leaders urging early elections.
To better position itself against what it sees as a hostile court, the government chose Aitzaz Ahsan as Gilani's lawyer. Ahsan is a leader of the so-called Lawyers Movement that successfully fought for the reinstatement of Supreme Court justices ousted from the bench by then-President Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
Ahsan told the seven-judge panel that he needed more time to pore over two years' worth of documents to research the immunity issue, so that he could return to court and explain why Gilani's belief in immunity was justified.
The court continued the until Feb. 1.
At the heart of the immunity issue is whether it affords all-encompassing or limited protection. The government maintains that the president cannot be charged with any crime while he is in office, but some critics contend that the protection applies only to Zardari's activities as president.
The high court for two years repeatedly urged Zardari's government to appear before it to legally defend its immunity claim. Until Thursday, the government had refused.
The contempt proceeding is just one front on which Zardari's party is fighting as it tries to hang on to power until national elections in 2013.
The country's military, which has had an acrimonious relationship with Zardari, ratcheted up pressure on the president last year. It was angered by allegations that Zardari's ambassador to the United States had sought Washington's intervention in fending off a military coup after the American raid in May that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
The ambassador, Husain Haqqani, resigned after the allegations surfaced but vehemently denies the claim. A Supreme Court-appointed commission is looking into the allegations, and a finding that Zardari engineered or authorized a memo seeking U.S. intervention could prove politically disastrous.
Analysts say Zardari's ultimate goal is for his government to survive until March, when a strong performance in Senate elections probably would bolster his party's clout in the parliament and give it a boost for next year's elections.