Gilani charged for contempt, pleads not guilty

Islamabad: Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was today indicted by Pakistan`s Supreme Court for contempt for refusing to revive graft cases against President Asif Ali Zardari, but the embattled leader pleaded not guilty to the charges, conviction for which may cost him his job.

Gilani, 59, the first Pakistani Prime Minister to be arraigned by the apex court while in office, was summoned following his refusal for over two years to write to Swiss authorities to reopen corruption cases against Zardari.

At the commencement of the hearing Justice Nasir-ul-Mulk, who headed the seven-judge bench, read out the two-page charge sheet and asked Gilani whether he had gone through the charges against him and understood them.

To this, Gilani responded by saying, "Yes, I have read the charge sheet and have understood them."

"Do you plead guilty?" asked Jutice Nasir-ul-Mulk. "No," Gilani replied. If convicted, Gilani could face up to six months in jail and would be disqualified to hold public office for five years.

The court then directed Attorney General Maulvi Anwarul Haq to prosecute the case, giving him until February 16 to file documents. The court set a February 22 date for the next hearing and asked the defence to file evidence by February 27, which will then be recorded on February 28. Following this, a date is expected to be set for Gilani`s trial.

The Prime Minister, however, will be exempted from personally appearing in future hearings. The indictment paving the way for Gilani`s trial, marks another chapter to the over two-year long confrontation between the government and the judiciary over the issue of the graft amnesty to politicians.

The PPP has been reluctant to act on the issue because top leaders believe any action on the cases in Switzerland could give the Supreme Court an opportunity to interpret the constitutional provision related to presidential immunity.

The government has refused to reopen the cases against Zardari, saying the President enjoys complete immunity from prosecution in criminal cases in Pakistan and abroad.

The court had said that USD 60 million that were allegedly laundered will come back to Pakistan only if the letter is written to Swiss authorities. However, reports have suggested that the President could pardon him after his possible conviction.

Asked during an interview with Al-Jazeera if he would stand down on being convicted, Gilani said: "Certainly, then there is no need to step down. If I am convicted, then I`m not even supposed to be a member of parliament."

Religious Affairs Minister Khursheed Shah, tipped as a possible replacement for the post of premier, told reporters that a decision will be made on writing a letter to the Swiss authorities by the PPP after the apex court gives its order and in line with the Constitution.

PML-Q chief Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, a key ally of the PPP, said Gilani had already faced a prison term in the past. He said he had suggested that the next premier should be from the PPP if Gilani is convicted.

This is the third time that a Pakistani Prime Minister was issued a contempt notice by the Supreme Court. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif faced similar orders.

PPP founder Bhutto was the first premier to face contempt proceedings, after he banned the Awami National Party (ANP) in 1974. The charge was dropped in 1976 due to the absence of proper evidence required for framing charges against Bhutto.

In 1997, PML-N chief Sharif too faced contempt charges over an appointment controversy of SC judges. The premier was eventually exonerated after he submitted an apology.