Pak SC dismisses Gilani contempt appeal

Islamabad: Dealing a body blow to embattled Premier Yousuf Raza Gilani, Pakistan`s Supreme Court today rejected his appeal against framing of contempt charges over his failure to reopen graft cases against the President, a move likely to plunge the country into a fresh political turmoil.

Before dismissing Gilani`s appeal against his February 13 appearance before the apex court for framing of contempt charges, Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who headed an eight- member bench, sought a clear answer from his lawyer if the Prime Minister would write a letter to Swiss government for reopening of graft cases against President Asif Ali Zardari.

"We are ready to give you 10 minutes to talk to the Prime Minister on the phone and let us know," he said. Gilani`s lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan replied "I have no mandate to do that."

The Prime Minister, who has no option but to appear before the court on February 13, if convicted, faces jail term of six months and disqualification from holding public office for five years.

"The appeal is dismissed," Chief Justice Chaudhry said, reading the decision of the bench. He said no one wants unrest. "We are exercising restraint. Tell the Prime Minister this (to defy court order) is not in the interest of the country," Chaudhry told Ahsan.

According to observers, the rejection of 59-year-old Gilani`s appeal will prolong a stand-off between the government and the judiciary, which many believe is being backed by the military. "Our appeal was rejected. As a result of this, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani will be charged for contempt of court on February 13. Inshallah, the Prime Minister will appear (in court) on February 13," Ahsan told reporters outside the court.

Gilani had cited precedents in India and other countries while moving his appeal in the court against its February 2 order summoning him for framing contempt charges.

Ahsan, in his arguments before the court, said that Gilani had done no wrong by not reviving the cases against Zardari as the President enjoyed immunity from prosecution within Pakistan and abroad.

Gilani will now have to appear before another seven-judge bench on February 13 to be charged with contempt of court for defying its order to write to the Swiss government to reopen graft cases against Zardari.

This is the third occasion that a Pakistani Premier has been issued a contempt notice by the apex court. The other Prime Ministers who faced similar action by the court in the past were Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif.

Gilani, who had earlier appeared before the court on January 19, had pleaded that the President enjoyed immunity and the cases could not be reopened against him.

Ahsan had defended the Premier`s actions during a marathon six-hour hearing in the apex court yesterday. He resumed his arguments this morning and said Gilani had only acted on the advice of his legal aides, but the Chief Justice insisted that Ahsan should clearly tell the Prime Minister that he had to act on the court`s orders.

When Ahsan sought 10 to 15 more days to consult the Premier, the bench said it was willing to give him 10 minutes. Shortly after this, the bench issued a short order rejecting Gilani`s appeal.

The Supreme Court has been pressuring the government to revive cases of alleged money laundering against Zardari in Switzerland since December 2009, when it struck down a graft amnesty issued by former military ruler Pervez Musharraf.

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

During yesterday`s proceedings, the Chief Justice said the contempt proceedings against Gilani would automatically end if the Premier wrote a letter to Swiss authorities to reopen the cases against Zardari.

The person involved in these cases is the head of the Prime Minister`s party but no one is above the law, the Chief Justice said. Besides Switzerland, the government will have to approach other countries to revive graft cases, the Chief Justice indicated.

Commentators have accused the apex court of bias, saying it had taken virtually no action against the more than 8,000 other people who had benefited from Musharraf`s graft amnesty.