ISLAMABAD — A lawyer for Pakistan's prime minister said Wednesday there would be no harm in the government asking Swiss authorities to reopen an old corruption case against the country's president, because he enjoys immunity from prosecution.
The comments by Aitzaz Ahsan suggest a way out of a legal crisis that could oust Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani from office. The mounting political pressures threaten to bring down the country's beleaguered government, which is under a combined assault from the Supreme Court and the powerful army.
Gilani is scheduled to make a rare appearance Thursday before the Supreme Court, which has initiated contempt proceedings against him for failing to write a letter to Swiss authorities asking them to reopen the graft case against his ally, President Asif Ali Zardari.
The government has long refused to write the letter, saying Zardari enjoys immunity from prosecution while in office. Ahsan's comments indicate Gilani may reverse that stance to avoid being held in contempt of court. If he were held in contempt he could face a maximum of five years in prison and be disqualified from holding public office.
"There is no harm in writing a letter to the Swiss authorities," said Ahsan. "The president has complete immunity against criminal procedures in courts."
Last year, Swiss prosecutors told reporters they couldn't prosecute Zardari since he had immunity.
Some observers have said the most likely option is that Gilani will make a conciliatory speech when he appears before the court and play for time to drag the process out.
Reopening the case would expose Zardari to prosecution once he leaves office. It would also come at a serious political cost since the president has said he would never send the letter to Swiss authorities because it would dishonor his late wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was also part of the case.
Zardari and Bhutto were found guilty in absentia in a Swiss court in 2003 of laundering millions of dollars in kickbacks from Swiss companies when they were in government.
They appealed, and Swiss authorities abandoned the case in 2008 at the request of the Pakistani government. The case was among thousands dropped as a result of an amnesty that allowed Bhutto to return from exile and contest elections in 2008.
The Supreme Court declared the amnesty unconstitutional in 2009, leaving those covered by it vulnerable to prosecution.
The government is also under pressure from the army over an unsigned memo sent last year to Washington asking for U.S. help in preventing a coup in the aftermath of the American raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
The army was outraged by the memo, which was allegedly sent by the government, and pushed the Supreme Court to set up a commission to investigate the matter. The government has denied any connection to the memo and opposed the commission, saying the matter was already being probed by the parliament.
Some observers have speculated the army is working behind the scenes with the Supreme Court to oust the government. But the court could have its own reasons for stepping up pressure on the government. Supreme Court Justice Mohammad Iftikhar Chaudhry has clashed with Zardari in the past, and the judges could be fed up with the government defying its order to reopen the corruption case against the president.
Since Pakistan was founded in 1947, no civilian government has ever completed a full five-year term before being toppled by a military coup, or forced to call early elections. There have been three coups over that period.
A fourth coup is considered unlikely, but the government may call early elections to counter the building political pressure.
Associated Press writer Sebastian Abbot contributed to this report.