Pakistan’s top court yesterday summoned new Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf to appear later this month to face possible contempt charges, the clearest sign yet it could dismiss a second prime minister in a showdown over corruption cases.
The Supreme Court — which disqualified and convicted former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani over the issue — summoned his successor on Aug. 27 for ignoring a request to ask Swiss authorities to reopen cases against Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.
It is the latest episode in a two-and-a-half-year saga in which the government has resisted demands to have Zardari investigated, arguing that as head of state he enjoys immunity.
The government is due to become the first in Pakistan’s history to complete an elected, full five-year mandate in February next year, but the showdown could force polls before then.
The court had given Ashraf until yesterday to write to Switzerland and last week struck down a new law passed by parliament that sought to exempt members of the government from contempt trials, clearing the way for legal proceedings against the prime minister.
Pakistani Judge Asif Saeed Khosa said Ashraf had been given notice “under [the] contempt of court act 2003, read with article 204 of the constitution to show cause as to why he may not be proceeded [against] in contempt of court by not complying [with the] relevant direction of the court.”
“He shall appear in person at the next date of hearing. Hearing adjourned until August 27,” Khosa added.
Critics of the judiciary and members of Zardari’s main ruling Pakistan People’s Party accuse the court of over stepping its reach and waging a personal vendetta against the president.
The government had wanted the case adjourned until next month. Attorney general Irfan Qadir said he needed time “to bridge the gap” between the two sides and “find an amicable solution.”
Experts say Ashraf will be asked to explain his position on Aug. 27. If the court is not satisfied, he risks being summoned to be indicted for contempt, precipitating the second contempt trial against a sitting prime minister in just months.
The allegations against Zardari date back to the 1990s, when he and his wife, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, were suspected of using Swiss bank accounts to launder US$12 million allegedly paid in bribes by companies seeking customs inspection contracts.
The Swiss shelved the cases in 2008 when Zardari became president and the government insists the president has full immunity as head of state.
However, in 2009 the Supreme Court overturned a political amnesty that had frozen investigations into the president and other politicians, ordering that the cases be reopened.
Zardari had already signed the contempt law, which sought to exempt government figures, including the president, prime minister and ministers from contempt for acts performed as part of their job.