Pakistani PM: President is immune from charges anywhere

120119071430-pakistan-pm-court-gilani-story-top Pakistan's prime minister was called before the country's Supreme Court Thursday in a battle over corruption cases facing the president and other officials.

"We have the height of respect for the judiciary, but there is full immunity for the president -- not only in Pakistan, but in the entire world, too," said Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.

It was the latest twist in a nearly decade-long battle.

The Pakistani Supreme Court had sent Gilani a contempt notice and ordered the hearing for him to explain why he refuses to reopen lingering cases against President Asif Ali Zardari and others.

Members of the cabinet and the leaders of allied political parties joined Gilani in court Thursday.

His attorney asked for more time to look through records pertaining to the case, and the court adjourned until February 1. Gilani will not have to appear at that hearing.

Gilani's appearance Thursday came after weeks of political turbulence in Pakistan that has strained relations between the country's civilian and military leaders and fueled speculation about the possibility of a military coup.

Military and civilian leaders held meetings over the weekend in an effort to defuse tensions. And the National Assembly passed a resolution Monday supporting the country's democratic system.

The corruption cases stem from money-laundering charges against Zardari and his late wife and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. A Swiss court convicted them in absentia in 2003 of laundering millions of dollars.

After a controversial amnesty was granted in 2007 by then-President Pervez Musharraf to Zardari, Bhutto and thousands of other politicians and bureaucrats, the Pakistani government asked Swiss authorities to drop the case.

In 2009, the Pakistani Supreme Court ruled the amnesty was unconstitutional and called on the government to take steps to have the cases reopened.

The government has not done so, and the court apparently lost patience.

Since Gilani is the head of the government, the court justices view him as responsible and want him to explain why the government has not followed the court's order.

Gilani's argument Thursday that Zardari is exempt from prosecution did not appear to satisfy the judges.

The outcome of the process remains unclear.

If Gilani apologizes and convinces the court that the government will follow its orders, the court could withdraw the contempt notice.

If the court is not satisfied with Gilani's answer, it will formulate contempt charges against him and present them at a later date.

"If the court concludes that he's in contempt, then they can take action against him," said Saeed-uz-Zaman Siddiqui, a former chief justice of Pakistan. "The maximum sentence is six months in prison."

Even if he went to prison, Gilani would not necessarily lose his premiership.

Pakistani law says that after a contempt of court conviction, the court sends a notice to the speaker of the National Assembly, the lower house of Parliament. The speaker has 30 days to forward the notice to the Election Board, which has 90 days to decide if Gilani is disqualified as a member of Parliament and therefore disqualified as prime minister.

Aitzaz Ahsan, Gilani's lawyer, has expressed confidence his client will be cleared.

"The prime minister will survive," Ahsan said Wednesday night on GEO-TV, a Pakistani news channel. "There will be no storm."

Ahsan is one of the most prominent and widely respected lawyers in Pakistan. He led the so-called "lawyer's movement," an uprising in 2008 that helped bring about the reinstatement of the current Pakistani chief justice, Iftikhar Muahmmad Chaudhry, and dozens of other judges who were sacked by Musharraf in 2007.

Analysts said they believe Ahsan carries considerable influence in the Supreme Court because of his efforts to restore Pakistan's judiciary.

Ahsan said Gilani would appeal if convicted.


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