Short relief for Gilani, SC adjourns contempt case

Islamabad: Appearing before the Supreme Court, Pakistan`s embattled Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani today said he has complete respect for judiciary and cannot think of committing any contempt but stood his ground that his government could not reopen graft cases against President Asif Ali Zardari as he enjoyed complete immunity.

Presenting himself before a seven-judge bench headed by Justice Nasir-ul-Mulk in compliance of its directive after being slapped with a contempt notice, Gilani appeared to have earned a breather when the apex court adjourned the hearing till February one and exempted him from personal appearance on future dates.

Backed by top lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan, a barrister, the 59-year-old Prime Minister, the second premier in office to appear before a court in contempt proceedings, said he could not even think of committing contempt of court as he had complete respect for the judiciary.

The bench appreciated Gilani`s decision to appear before the apex court, with Justice Asif Khosa, a member of the bench, saying his appearance showed the supremacy of law.

However, the court raised the question why the government had not acted on its past orders to reopen the cases of alleged money laundering against Zardari in Switzerland after the National Reconciliation Ordinance, a graft amnesty passed by former President Pervez Musharraf, was struck down in 2009.

Explaining his government`s position, Gilani said Pakistan`s constitution gives full immunity to the President within the country and abroad.

Moreover, Presidents of all countries around the world too have immunity, he pointed out in an extempore statement before the bench that lasted a little more than five minutes.
Gilani said his government was bound to act according to the Constitution and the law.

Gilani`s lawyer Ahsan, one of Pakistan`s leading legal experts, told the bench that the President enjoyed immunity under both the country`s Constitution and the Vienna Conventions.

Ahsan said the apex court should not force the government to write a letter to the Swiss government that becomes a joke, and creates a situation whereby the Swiss authorities say they cannot act against Zardari as he is protected by the Vienna Conventions.

The bench asked Ahsan if the government would contact the Swiss authorities if it is proved that the President does not have immunity. Ahsan then sought a month`s time to study the records of the case but the bench directed him to submit a detailed reply at the next hearing on February 1.

Ahsan told the court that the current proceedings pertained to the contempt notice and he intended to argue that the premier had not committed contempt of court. The reasons for not acting on the court`s past orders could be explained by the Law Secretary, he said.

Talking to reporters after the hearing, Ahsan said he intended to satisfy the court that "under Article 248 of the Constitution, the (President?s) immunity in this case is complete".

Though a lot of hype had been generated about the premier`s appearance in the court, the proceedings were completed without much drama in about 90 minutes. After the hearing, a group of unruly lawyers created a commotion outside the main entrance of the apex court by shouting slogans in support of the judiciary and against Ahsan.

The premier`s security detail asked him to leave the court through a side entrance due to the protest by the lawyers but he insisted on coming out of the main door and driving away in his white SUV with Interior Minister Rehman Malik.

Earlier, top leaders of Pakistan`s ruling coalition, including several federal ministers, gathered at the Supreme Court amidst tight security to extend support to Gilani.

Among those who came to the court were Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, Interior Minister Malik, Asfandyar Wali Khan of the Awami National Party, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain of the PML-Q and Punjab Governor Latif Khosa.

Gilani was on Monday issued a contempt of court notice for failing to act on the apex court`s order 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 premiers who faced similar action by the court were Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif.

Before the proceedings began at 9.30 am, security agencies closed off the high-security Red Zone that is home to the Supreme Court and other buildings like the parliament and presidency.

Hundreds of policemen and parliamentary personnel were deployed in the area to create a three-tier security ring.

The road in front of the apex court was closed at midnight. Nearly 100 members of the Pakistani and foreign media were issued passes to cover the court proceedings.

Gilani`s motorcade drove the short distance from the premier`s official residence to the Supreme Court at about 9.25 am as helicopters mounted surveillance over the centre of the city. Gilani drove his white SUV into the court complex with his lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan sitting beside him in the front seat.

The premier waved to the large crowd that had gathered outside the court several times before walking inside. He was accompanied by some federal ministers.

After entering the building through a walk-through security gate, Gilani walked a short distance and climbed a set of stairs to enter courtroom number 4 where the proceedings were held.