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Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf waves after arriving at the Supreme Court in Islamabad August 27, 2012. — Photo by Reuters

ISLAMABAD, Aug 27: Dressed in black sherwani on a sultry day, Raja Pervez Ashraf appeared before the Supreme Court on Monday as the second prime minister to answer why he should not be charged with committing contempt like his predecessor, but got a 22-day breathing space.

Prime Minister Ashraf appeared more confident than his predecessor Yousuf Raza Gilani and he quietly walked to the court, along with his visibly tense legal aide, Law Minister Farooq H. Naek, to be seated inside the courtroom No 2.

He was accompanied by his coalition partners like PML-Q’s Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, Awami National Party’s Haji Adeel, Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s Babar Ghouri and cabinet colleagues.

A five-judge bench headed by Justice Asif Saeed Khosa had issued a show-cause notice to the prime minister for not implementing its orders in the NRO case of writing a letter to the Swiss authorities to reopen graft cases worth $60 million against President Asif Zardari.

He was asked to appear before the court in person to answer contempt charges.

The white SUV carrying the prime minister was the same which had brought to the court premises his predecessor Gilani who was convicted and eventually disqualified for committing contempt of the court.

Throughout his presence, the court bristled with blue-clad security officers encircling the prime minister and by media personnel.

But the arrangement was better and the crowd more organised and relaxed than on previous occasions.

Request for time

The prime minister immediately clinched the opportunity when asked to address to the court. He spoke extempore in Urdu and right away asked for four to six weeks saying he had assumed the high office only two months ago and could not find adequate time to concentrate on the issue at hand because of daunting challenges the country was facing both domestically and internationally.

“Besides, I also wanted to submit a reply to the show-cause issued by the court and to engage a legal counsel,” the prime minister pleaded.

The performance of the prime minister was quite impressive and he got the much-needed space while not budging an inch from the government’s stance on the issue of writing the letter. The court also was more flexible towards him, said a legal observer who did not want to be named. It appeared that some kind of backchannel efforts were at work, he added.

“It is a matter of privilege and honour for me to appear before the highest court of the country,” Prime Minister Ashraf said. He conceded that the NRO implementation case had created quite an upheaval in the country and, therefore, needed to be resolved quickly.

No solid commitment

The prime minister avoided giving any clear assurance to the bench despite repeatedly asked to make a positive commitment. He said it was his solemn desire to find a way out commensurate with the dignity and honour of the judiciary.

“I am a law-abiding citizen and have complete respect for the law and the judiciary. I don’t want to give an impression as if my government intends to defy a court order,” he said, adding that he wanted to create an example that the PPP government respected the judiciary.

“It is my as well as my coalition partners’ strong desire not to be remembered in history as someone who flouted and disregarded the dignity and majesty of the court,” Mr Ashraf emphasised.

He said he would make sincere efforts to end the current uncertainty which was taking a heavy toll on the country and expressed his resolve again to find an amicable solution to the stalemate, keeping in view the dignity of the court.

“But I need time to reach a consensus with the coalition partners as well as cabinet colleagues,” he said.

No turning back

Justice Asif Khosa praised the prime minister for appearing before the court and said that until indicted he should not consider himself to be an accused since the court had great respect and deference for the high office. But he made it clear that after the judgment in the Gilani conviction case it was difficult for the court to go back from its stance on NRO implementation or for the prime minister to have any discretion in the matter.

“Only implementation of court’s order will reflect respect for the judiciary and not mere appearance before it,” Justice Khosa observed.

“The matter can be solved in three days as all you have to do, as explained in the Gilani case, is to authorise either the law minister or Attorney General Irfan Qadir and the court will sort out the rest of the matter,” the bench assured the prime minister and reiterated its earlier offer to facilitate the government by addressing all concerns it had with the court.

“We will also take care of any anticipated effect,” the court observed.

The prime minister said the media had created a lot of hype which was adversely affecting “our relations with the outside world, especially with the United States and, therefore, it should be solved at all cost”.

“I assure you that it is not my intention to linger on the matter any further,” he said. But he ignored repeated remarks by judges about contemptuous statements being made by certain senators, governors and ministers against the judiciary. All that the prime minister had to say was to mention the drubbing he and the president were getting at the hands of 89 independent TV channels.

The order

After a brief consultation with brother judges, Justice Khosa acceded to put off the proceedings till Sept 18, but pointed out that the prime minister had undertaken to appear in person again on that date.

The order said he (prime minister) had stated his earnest and sincere desire to resolve the present issue in a manner which would uphold the dignity of the court and also address the concerns of the federal government.

“With these submissions he has requested for some time to make a genuine and sincere effort to first understand the issue with all its complexities and then take steps to implement the order/direction of this court,” the order said.

After the hearing, the attorney general said the prime minister’s appearance before the court showed his respect for the judiciary. The judiciary also should reciprocate the same, he said.

Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira said the prime minister’s presence had proved that all those who were accusing the ruling PPP of not complying with the court’s orders were wrong. He said some positive way out would emerge after consultation with coalition partners.

Live updates

10: 37: The prime minister departed from the court's premises after the completion of today's hearing.

10: 30: The bench adjourned the hearing of the NRO implementation case to Sept 18.

10: 08: The bench then gave the premier until Sept 18 to write the letter to Swiss authorities.

10: 07: The premier said he would be in China at the time and requested the court to give a date after the 12th.

10: 06 After the completion of the premier's statement, the bench on the judges held a consultation after which the court gave him time until Sept 12 to write the letter.

10: 04: Prime Minister Ashraf said that he valued the court's advice.

10: 03: Justice Khosa said it had been decided that regardless of position, everyone would have to obey the laws of the state, adding that, the bench did not want the premier to appear before it again and again. He moreover said that instead of consultations, the prime minister should resolve the matter at the earliest.

10:02: Justice Khosa asked if the government was employing delaying tactics, upon which the prime minister said that he had only been the premier for two months and that he should be given some time.

10: 01: Prime Minister Ashraf assured the court that the matter would be resolved.

10: 00:  Justice Khosa said the court did not want confrontation but only wanted the implementation of laws.

09: 59: Justice Khosa said the court was willing to grant more time once it is guaranteed that the directive would be implemented.

09: 58: Justice Khosa said only appearing in the court did not imply respect for the judiciary, adding that, the prime minister should guarantee that the court's directive would be implemented.

09: 57: Justice Athar Saeed said that members of the cabinet had been giving statements that were tantamount to contempt of court.

09:56: Justice Athar Saeed moreover said that it appeared that the prime minister had no control over his cabinet.

09: 55: Justice Athar Saeed told the premier that in spite of holding several sessions and meetings on the matter, he had not been able to resolve them.

09: 54: Addressing the prime minister, Justice Ejaz Afzal said that the matter should be resolved at the earliest.

09: 52: Justice Khosa gave three days to the prime minister to resolve the matter saying the matter could be resolved in three days and that the prime minister should act on the court's directive in that time period.

09: 48: Justice Asif Saeed Khosa said the issue was not as complex as the government was making it seem.

09: 45: Prime Minister Ashraf requested the court to give him four to six weeks' time to write the letter to Swiss authorities.

"I need time to understand the matter...as it involves certain legal and Constitutional points," the premier told the court.

"I need enough time from the court to seek the assistance of constitutional and legal experts," he said.

09: 43: Prime Minister Ashraf said several resident and non-resident Pakistanis had concerns regarding the Swiss case.

09: 42: Prime Minister Ashraf said that the government had to ensure that the court's respect was maintained.

09:27: Prime Minister Ashraf arrives in Courtroom No.2.

09:15: Qamar Zaman Kaira said writing the letter to Swiss authorities was in violation of the Constitution, adding that, the PPP was ready to offer more sacrifices for democracy.

09:11: Earlier, Prime Minister Ashraf told media representatives that he was appearing before the court out of his respect for the judiciary.

09:06: Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf arrived at the Supreme Court.

09:03: ANP leader Haji Adeel was also present in the court.

08: 58: "A middle path should be adopted this time," Kaira told reporters outside the Supreme Court.

08: 57: Qamar Zaman Kaira said: We have appeared before the courts earlier also and have respected the decisions in spite of having reservations. 08:55: Speaking to media representatives outside the Supreme Court, Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira said that the PPP had always respected the institution of the judiciary.

08:51: The hearing would be held in Courtoom No. 2, reports said.

08: 50: The prime minister's security staff arrived at the court.

08: 45: Deputy Prime Minister Pervez Elahi and Attorney General Irfan Qadir had also arrived at the court.

08: 44: Presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar and PPP leader and defence minister Naveed Qamar arrived at the court for the hearing.

08: 42: The prime minister would not be disqualified, PPP leader Amin Faheem said, adding that, the Constitution did not allow the disqualification of a prime minister.

08: 41: Faheem said the party always respected the judiciary.

Strict security arrangements were made around the apex court in the wake of the hearing of the high profile case. No unauthorised persons were allowed in the red-zone as police has cordoned off the area surrounding the apex court.

Raja Pervez Ashraf is facing similar proceedings in the Supreme Court following the unceremonious exit of former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani in June this year.

PPP and coalition parties' stance on the issue

The ruling coalition on Sunday night decided that the prime minister would appear before the Supreme Court. The coalition, however, remained adamant not to write the letter to Swiss authorities for reopening the cases against President Zardari.

The announcement was made in a handout issued by presidential spokesman Farhatullah Khan Babar after a 90-minute meeting of coalition partners at the Presidency.

“After an in-depth discussion on points raised by the law minister and weighing available options, the meeting decided that in line with the coalition government’s policy of showing respect to the majesty of law the prime minister would appear before the Supreme Court on Monday,” Babar said.

The spokesman said the coalition partners had resolved to remain united in coping with the challenges confronting the government and the prime minister.

The PPP members were of the view that since there had been no change in the party’s stance on the issue of writing the letter there would be no use of putting the prime minister in the dock.

President Zardari is alleged to have amassed $60 million in Swiss banks.