ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's Supreme Court ramped up the pressure on the nation's beleaguered government Monday, beginning contempt proceedings against the prime minister for failing to carry out its order to reopen a corruption case against the president.
The court ordered Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to appear before the bench on Thursday to explain his refusal to reopen the graft investigation, injecting fresh uncertainty into the political crisis threatening to engulf the country. If the court convicts Gilani of contempt, he could serve up to six months in prison and be disqualified from holding office.
"The Supreme Court and the government are in an open clash now, and it seems fairly obvious the court is unwilling to back off," said Cyril Almeida, a columnist for Dawn newspaper.
The government already is locked in a bitter conflict with the army, and Monday's Supreme Court ruling boosted the sense the administration could fall, squeezed between the court and Pakistan's powerful generals. The government is also grappling with an ailing economy and a violent Taliban insurgency.
"Once the Supreme Court, the army and the political opposition agree the government needs to go sooner rather than later, it seems very difficult for the government to stay on," Almeida told The Associated Press.
The escalating political crisis is likely a concern for the U.S., which is worried about instability in the nuclear-armed country and also needs the government's help on the war in neighboring Afghanistan.
The Supreme Court has ordered the government to ask Swiss authorities to reopen a corruption case against President Asif Ali Zardari that dates back to the 1990s and involves the jurisdiction of the Swiss courts. The government has refused, saying Zardari has immunity, and supporters say the court is pursuing a vendetta against the country's civilian leadership.
The government also is at odds with the army over an unsigned memo delivered to Washington last year offering the U.S. a raft of favorable security policies in exchange for its help in thwarting a supposed military coup.
The army was outraged by the memo and pushed the Supreme Court to open an inquiry into the scandal against the government's wishes. Some observers believe the court's pressure on the graft case is being orchestrated by the military to put maximum strain on the government.
Pakistan has long been plagued by tension between the civilian government and the army, which has seized power in three coups since the country was founded in 1947. The government has given the generals control over foreign and security policy, but the civilian leadership and the top brass have never seen eye-to-eye since Zardari and Gilani took office in 2008.
The head of the Supreme Court, Mohammad Iftikhar Chaudhry, has also clashed with Zardari.
The court initiated contempt proceedings against Gilani on Monday after the government failed to respond to an order outlining a series of punitive options the judges could take if the government did not reopen the case against Zardari. Attorney General Maulvi Anwarul Haq told the court he had not received instructions from the country's leaders on how to respond to the order.
Federal Law Minister Maula Bakhsh Chandio said the government would review the court's action against Gilani and "obey the law and the constitution."
"This is not a small or an ordinary thing," he said outside the court. "This is a Supreme Court order."
The government has vowed to see out its term, scheduled to end in 2013, and oversee elections — something that has never happened in the country's history. But the crisis threatens to upend that, and some lawmakers in Zardari's party speculate that elections could be called earlier to try to ease tensions.
Gilani criticized the army last week for cooperating with the Supreme Court probe into the memo scandal. He has said the standoff is nothing less than a choice between "democracy and dictatorship." Gilani's comments followed a warning from the generals of possible "grievous consequences" ahead.
Zardari has been vulnerable to prosecution since 2009 when the Supreme Court struck down an amnesty granting him and other leading political figures immunity from past graft cases. The court deemed the amnesty, which was granted in 2008, unconstitutional.
The court has zeroed in on one corruption investigation taken up by the Swiss government against Zardari that was halted in 2008 when Pakistani prosecutors, acting on the amnesty, told Swiss authorities to drop the case.