Pakistan's embattled Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani will appear before Supreme Court on Monday to face contempt charges that could decide his fate and plunge the country into a fresh political turmoil over his refusal to reopen graft cases against the President.
Dealing a major blow to Gilani, 59, Pakistan's apex court headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry on Friday had rejected his appeal against framing of contempt charges over his failure to act on its repeated orders to revive cases of alleged money laundering against Asif Ali Zardari in Switzerland.
Gilani personally appeared in the court when it took up the contempt case on January 19 and said the government could not reopen the cases against the President because he enjoys complete immunity in Pakistan and abroad.
Refusing to buy his arguments, the court told Gilani that he had no option but to write to Swiss authorities to revive graft cases against Zardari as no one was above the law.
Insiders in the ruling Pakistan People's Party today said the premier is expected to stick to this position when he appears in court again tomorrow.
If Gilani is convicted, he could be imprisoned for six months and face possible removal from office after being disqualified from holding public office for five years.
However, legal experts pointed out that the President had the power to pardon him after his conviction.
SM Zafar, a noted lawyer and parliamentarian, said such a presidential pardon would apply only to the punishment handed down by the court while the conviction would remain on record.
Therefore, the premier could be disqualified despite the pardon, he remarked.
The apex court has been pressuring the government to reopen the cases since December 2009, when it struck down the National Reconciliation Ordinance, a graft amnesty issued by former military ruler Pervez Musharraf that benefited Zardari and over 8,000 others.
The PPP has been reluctant to act 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.
"Once the Swiss cases are reopened, then the court could say it wants to review the President's immunity. And all this will pave the way to launch a 'get Zardari' movement on legal grounds," a PPP leader, who did not want to be named, told PTI.
At the same time, the PPP's top leadership has considered the possibility that Gilani may have to be replaced if the apex court acts against him.
Religious Affairs Minister Khursheed Shah and Defence Minister Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar have emerged as possible contenders for the premier's slot if Gilani is disqualified, insiders said.
There is a section in the PPP which believes that any action taken by the Supreme Court against Gilani could boost the party's standing, especially in the premier’s home province of Punjab, at a time when its fortunes are at a low.
"People are already saying that the courts have never acted against military dictators and those who violated the Constitution. Imagine what will happen if the court decides to act against the Prime Minister who freed the judges who were detained by Pervez Musharraf," said another PPP leader, who too did not want to be named.
"We are fully convinced that Gilani's sacrifice will give a boost to the party and help lay a strong launch pad for the next election," a presidential aide said.
In an indication of the thinking within the PPP, Gilani told a public meeting in Punjab yesterday that now the party's leaders, and not the workers, would make "sacrifices".
Legal expert S M Zafar, however, said it would be "bad for the country" if the premier is punished by the apex court.
The court could also issue an order that whoever occupied the post of premier, in the event of Gilani's possible removal, would have to write to Swiss authorities to revive the corruption cases against Zardari.
Such a move, Zafar said, could lead to more tensions between the government and the judiciary.
Such fears have prompted some of the PPP's allies in the ruling coalition to suggest that the government should act on the court's orders, sources said.
During the hearing on Gilani's appeal, the court had said that $60 million that were allegedly laundered will come back to Pakistan only if the letter is written to Swiss authorities.
Gilani is expected to take the PPP's allies into confidence about his strategy for the contempt proceedings in the apex court, party insiders said.
Within the PPP, no leaders have differed with the top leadership's decision not to reopen the cases in Switzerland, they said.
Kamil Ali Agha of the PML-Q, a key ally of the PPP, said his party did not want a clash of state institutions.
"There should not be a clash between the government and the judiciary as all institutions should work within their constitutional ambit," he said.