Pakistan’s top court has summoned the new prime minister to appear later this month to face possible contempt charges, escalating a wrangle over corruption cases against the country’s president.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court – which has already dismissed the prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, over the issue – summoned his successor Raja Pervez Ashraf on August 27 for ignoring a request to ask Swiss authorities to reopen cases against the head of state, 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 president 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 2013, but the showdown could force polls before then.
The court had previously given Ashraf until August 8 to write to Switzerland asking it to reopen the multimillion-dollar graft probes.
“We issue notice to Raja Pervez Ashraf 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 and [is] not complying [with the] relevant direction of the court,” said Judge Asif Saeed Khosa.
“He shall appear in person at the next date of hearing. Hearing adjourned until August 27,” the judge 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 September. Irfan Qadir, the attorney general, 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 August 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, late premier Benazir Bhutto, were suspected of using Swiss bank accounts to launder $12 million allegedly paid in bribes by companies seeking customs
The Swiss shelved the cases in 2008 when Zardari became president and the government insists the president has full immunity as head of state.
But 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 cabinet ministers from contempt for acts performed as part of their job.
Imtiaz Gul, an analyst, told AFP that Wednesday’s decision showed the court was refusing to back down. “The logical consequence of the court’s position is the disqualification of any prime minister who refuses to write the letter,” he said.