ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was charged with contempt by the Supreme Court on Monday, pleading not guilty to charges that could see him jailed for six months and disqualified from office.
Summoned over the government's two-year refusal to write to authorities in Switzerland asking them to re-open corruption cases against the president, Gilani is Pakistan's first premier ever to be charged in office.
Gilani, who swept into court dressed in a dark suit, grey tie, white shirt and cufflinks, was charged within minutes of appearing.
Reading out the charge sheet, Judge Nasir ul-Mulk said the prime minister had “wilfully flouted, disregarded and disobeyed” orders from the Supreme Court over re-opening alleged laundered money cases.
“Do you plead guilty?” asked Mulk.
“No,” Gilani replied, adding that he would respond further in writing.
The court ordered the attorney general to prosecute the case, giving him until Thursday to file documents, which the court will examine on February 22, and the defence until February 27 to file documents and a list of witnesses.
Evidence from Gilani's lawyer will then be recorded on February 28, three days before March 2 Senate elections, at which the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) is expected to win a near-majority of seats.
Gilani was exempted from appearing in court until further notice.
The hearing lasted less than half an hour and Gilani left soon after, waving confidently to crowds of lawyers huddled under gloomy grey skies and a persistent drizzle.
Security was razor-tight for today's hearing, with hundreds of riot police guarding the court and queues trailing back from checkpoints where police searched vehicles and helicopters hovering overhead.
The black-suited lawyers divided themselves into two factions, chanting support for either the government or the Supreme Court.
The PPP leaders dismissed speculation in the press on Monday that Gilani would soon need to be replaced.
“Comments about a new prime minister are premature. The president has immunity,” Information Minister Firdous Ashiq Awan told reporters.
Other allies criticised the indictment. “For the first time the prime minister has been charged. It's a sad day in the history of Pakistan,” said Qamar Zaman Kaira, a senior member of the ruling party.
An editorial of an English newspaper said: “The prime minister's actions reek of protecting the president over our system of democracy.”
“Even if the president's immunity is upheld, it will no longer be applicable once he is out of office and in that eventuality there may be no legal or constitutional hitch in preventing the Supreme Court from going ahead on this issue.”
That is the view held by many other commentators, who hail the Supreme Court's actions as a badly needed advance for the rule of law and accountability in Pakistan
Others say the Supreme Court's pursuit of Zardari and his party is bad for democracy and strengthens the hand of the powerful military.
“At one level, this serves the army's purposes,” said Najim Sethi. “They want the politicians to fight amongst themselves and remain discredited.”
The constant infighting allows the army to solidify its control over foreign policy and national security, and limits the civilian government's attempts to control the military.
“This will not be good news for democracy,” said political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi.
“Once again, non-elected institutions are trying to re-formulate the elected institutions. Previously the military was doing it, now it is the judiciary.”
“The performance of the government is already poor and now the attention of the government is fully diverted to survival,” said Rizvi. “So survival becomes the key issue and other issues are on the sidelines.”
Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a political science professor at Lahore University of Management Sciences, said the government's goal was to survive through at least the summer, when it would finish the next annual budget.
That would allow the ruling party to funnel dollars to the right places to improve its chances in national elections, which are scheduled for 2013 but which many expect could be called early in the fall.
It would also see them through Senate elections next month.
''They know elections are coming and would like to stay in power, so I think they are willing to sacrifice Gilani by not writing the letter,'' said Rais.