Pakistan's Supreme Court on Thursday set July 25 deadline for Premier Raja Pervez Ashraf to approach Swiss authorities to reopen graft cases against President Asif Ali Zardari, triggering a fresh political crisis over the issue which had cost his predecessor his job.
A five-judge bench headed by Justice Asif Saeed Khan Khosa directed Ashraf to write to the Swiss authorities without any further consultations on the matter with legal experts or within the government.
The apex court had earlier directed the Premier to inform it by Thursday whether he would contact the Swiss authorities about the graft cases.
The bench said it expected the Premier to write to the Swiss authorities and furnish a report on complying with the court's order at the next hearing on July 25.
If the Premier failed to do so, the court will take appropriate action under the Constitution against him, the bench warned.
The same issue had cost Ashraf's predecessor, Yousuf Raza Gilani, his job.
Gilani was convicted of contempt in April after he refused to act on the apex court's orders to reopen the graft cases. A bench headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry disqualified Gilani for five years last month.
Hours before the apex court issued its latest order to Ashraf, President Zardari signed into law a bill aimed at protecting top government leaders from contempt of court proceedings and countering the court's efforts to pressure the premier to revive the graft cases in Switzerland.
The bench headed by Justice Khosa also rejected Ashraf's response that was submitted through Attorney General Irfan Qadir.
The top law officer said the issue of the graft cases was discussed by the Cabinet at a meeting on Wednesday and government wanted more time so that the law minister and law secretary, who had recently assumed office, could study the matter.
Earlier in the day, the Attorney General told the bench that he had met the Premier on Wednesday and told him of the apex court's order. He further said a meeting of the Cabinet had discussed the issue.
The government had sought the law ministry's opinion on the apex court's directive, the Attorney General said.
He had further asked the bench to put off the case till after the apex court's summer vacation.
The development came hours after Presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar said Zardari had given his assent to the Contempt of Court Bill of 2012 after it was passed by the Senate and National Assembly, the two houses of Parliament.
The new law is intended to save Ashraf from possible disqualification by the apex court for refusing to reopen the cases related to alleged laundering of $60 million during slain ex-premier Benazir Bhutto's second term in the 1990s.
The law provides blanket immunity to top government functionaries, including the President, Prime Minister, federal ministers and provincial chief ministers and Governors, for executive actions. It can also be used to launch disciplinary proceedings against a judge without such a move coming under the ambit of contempt.
The judiciary, especially Chief Justice Chaudhry, has been pushing the PPP-led government to reopen the corruption cases in Switzerland since December 2009, when the apex court annulled a graft amnesty issued by former military ruler Pervez Musharraf that benefited Zardari and over 8,000 others.
The government has refused to act, saying the President enjoys immunity from prosecution within Pakistan and abroad.
PPP leaders and legal experts have accused the Chief Justice of acting in a biased manner by pursing cases only against Zardari and his party.