The Pakistan supreme court Tuesday ordered the arrest of prime minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf on corruption charges, deepening the political crisis with thousands of protesters demanding immediate dissolution of the government.
A three-judge bench, led by chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who has been at loggerheads with the government, set a 24-hour deadline for the arrest of Ashraf and 17 others accused of accepting bribes for sanctioning power plants in 2010 when he was the electricity and water minister.
The rampant corruption in the rental power projects saw Ashraf being tagged “Raja Rental”.
Order for his arrest came as thousands of people led by cleric Tahirul Qadri, who many analysts believe is a stalking horse for the military and judiciary out to create political chaos, demonstrated close to parliament, demanding that a caretaker government
be put in place to oversee the run-up to elections due in March.
The timing couldn’t have been better as by mid-afternoon Qadri’s rally had begun to falter. “Mubarak ho, Mubarak ho,” the cleric, who recently returned from Canada, shouted as TV channels flashed the news.
"There is no doubt that Qadri's march and the Supreme Court's verdict were masterminded by the military establishment," Fawad Chaudhry, an aide to Ashraf, told Reuters.
But, interior minister Rehman Malik said the decision didn't have the army's backing. "We have to respect the decision but it is a politically motivated move," he said. Hinting the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party would challenge the decision, Malik said Ashraf would remain the PM "come what may".
Ashraf took office in June last year after the court dismissed his predecessor Yousaf Raza Gilani for contempt after he refused to ask Swiss authorities to reopen corruption cases against President Asif Ali Zardari.
"There is every possibility that the prime minister may be sentenced to time in jail," analyst Kamran Khan said.
The rumblings were felt in the Karachi Stock Exchange as well, which lost 453.46 points in little over half-an-hour of the court's order.
Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif said democracy was under threat but Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf leader Imran Khan welcomed the order and demanded the resignation of Zardari.
(With agency inputs)