Pakistan's Supreme Court on Monday indicted Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani for contempt of court in the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) implementation case.
A two-page chargesheet was read out by justice Nasirul Mulk, who headed the seven-member bench hearing the case. The PM said he will contest the charges while political allies have indicated that the move by the apex court can best be described as a ‘judicial coup.’ For its part, the government has said it will not write the letter to the Swiss authorities, as demanded by the court, citing immunity enjoyed by the president. The chargesheet that was read out in a packed court room while hundreds waited outside.
The chargesheet said PM had violated Article 204 of the Constitution by not writing a letter to the Swiss authorities as ordered by the court. It added that the prime minister also violated paragraph 178 of the court's verdict in the NRO implementation case.
Gilani pleaded not guilty and sought more time in the case. But, the court ordered Attorney General Maulvi Anwarul Haq to prosecute the prime minister and present more documents and proof to the court. The PM's counsel, Aitzaz Ahsan, told the court that he will present his arguments on February 22, while Gilani was ordered to bring sufficient evidence by February 27.
The prime minister was exempted from further hearings while the hearing was adjourned till February 22.
Outside the courtroom, information secretary of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party, Qamar Zaman Kaira, said that it was a "sad day for democracy in Pakistan." Kaira said "this is the first time a prime minister of Pakistan has been charged in this way. It is a sad day for us all."
It may be recalled that Prime Minister Gilani was served a contempt notice in the NRO implementation case when the government did not follow the court's orders of writing a letter to the Swiss authority to reopen graft cases against President Asif Ali Zardari.
The SC has said it will only drop the summons if Gilani obeys its order to write to the Swiss authorities, asking them to re-open the cases. But outside the courtroom, information minister Firdous Ashiq Awan told reporters that the government would not write the letter.
"The president enjoys immunity under the constitution. We will not write the letter," she said. Awan accused the court of taking Benazir Bhutto to trial in her grave. "We will not allow that to happen."
The president's spokesman, Farhatullah Babar, added that the letter could only be written if the immunity was removed.
"That can only happen through an amendment in the constitution," he said, adding "All will be well. Our party and its leaders have weathered many such storms."
If convicted, Gilani faces six months in jail and disqualification from office in a case that has fanned political instability and may force elections within months.
Political allies have rallied behind the government, with leader of the Awami National Party, Senator Ghulam Bilour saying that this is the "first coup by the judiciary."
But the opposition wants the apex court to move decisively.
"If money belonging to the people is looted from them and stashed away in accounts in Swiss banks, will the nation not demand that this money is returned to them?" opposition leader Mian Nawaz Sharif said at a joint news conference.
Nawaz said that the people must be explained what the significance of this letter is.
The letter, he said, should say that this money belongs to the people of Pakistan and it is their demand that this money is brought back to their country.
"The money will only be brought back if this letter is written. So why is the government unwilling to write this letter and bring the money to Pakistan?"
In a clear reference to President Asif Ali Zardari, Nawaz said that nobody in the country is willing to accept that one man who has looted all this money and refuses to bring it back is allowed to go scot-free while a prime minister becomes his scapegoat."It must be clarified to the people what the government is committed to: the country or corruption? The prime minister has also taken oath under the constitution and should be clear on which side he is on."