ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's government on Thursday bowed to a long-standing Supreme Court demand to debate whether the president enjoys immunity from a past corruption case, a concession that could help defuse a crisis threatening the U.S.-backed administration.
The government agreed to the demand after the court threatened Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani with contempt charges for failing to reopen a decade-old case against his boss, President Asif Ali Zardari, and forced the premier to make a rare appearance before the judges.
The court gave Gilani's attorney two weeks to prepare his argument. The period could further reduce heightened tension between the Supreme Court and the beleaguered government, which is also battling the judges and the powerful army over a secret memo sent to Washington last year seeking help in stopping a supposed military coup.
Speculation has been rampant that the combined assault could cause the government's downfall by forcing it to accept calls for early elections. But the government may be heartened by the Supreme Court's decision not to make any immediate moves to hold Gilani in contempt, a charge that could land him in prison for up to six months and disqualify him from holding office.
The government has long defied a 2009 Supreme Court order to write a letter to Swiss authorities asking them to reopen a corruption case against Zardari that dates back to the 1990s, claiming he enjoys immunity from prosecution while in office.
It has also ignored a demand to go before the court to argue the immunity claim, probably because members of the ruling party viewed the court's actions as a partisan campaign to take down Zardari, who has clashed with Supreme Court Chief Justice Mohammad Iftikhar Chaudhry.
Gilani delivered a nearly 10-minute speech Thursday to the seven-judge bench, which did not include Chaudhry. The prime minister expressed respect for the court and said he never intended to "ridicule" the judges. He said it was his belief that Zardari "has complete immunity inside and outside the country."
Gilani's lawyer, Aitzaz Ahsan, did most of the talking for the prime minister during the session and agreed to formally argue for the president's immunity before the judges when the hearing resumes on Feb. 1.
"I will bow to the court order and will also speak on immunity to satisfy the court that the president has complete immunity," Ahsan told reporters.
Political analyst Hasan-Askari Rizvi said the government's stance "will definitely contribute to reduce the tension" with the court. But he warned that the judges may still seek to make life difficult for the president.
Security was especially tight during the court session, which was also attended by several of Gilani's ministers and coalition partners. Police lined the roads in front of the Supreme Court and two helicopters hovered over the building during the hearing.
Supporters and opponents of the government competed for attention outside the court. A group of roughly a dozen women chanted, "Long live Zardari!" while several dozen lawyers shouted slogans in favor of the court chief justice and against the president.
Zardari and his late wife, former Prime Minister Benazir 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 run for election in 2008. She was assassinated in 2007 during the campaign.
The Supreme Court declared the amnesty unconstitutional in 2009, leaving those covered by it vulnerable to prosecution.
Zardari said recently that the government would never send the letter to the Swiss reopening the case because it would dishonor Bhutto.
Many legal experts agree that Zardari does enjoy immunity from the Swiss corruption case while in office, but the judges gave no indication Thursday of where they stood.
The government is also at locked in bitter conflict with the army over the secret memo scandal. 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 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 others believe the judges are acting independently because of the enmity between Zardari and the chief justice and the frustration with the government's refusal to obey court orders.
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.