ISLAMABAD _ Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani appeared before a Supreme Court panel Thursday to defend himself in contempt of court proceedings, succeeding in staving off an immediate ruling in a high-stakes case that could lead to his ouster and jeopardize his party's hold on government.
Earlier this week, the high court initiated contempt proceedings against Gilani, contending he had deliberately ignored their frequent demands to pursue longstanding corruption allegations against his boss, President Asif Ali Zardari. The case, involving a money-laundering charge in Switzerland against Zardari and his late wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was dropped by Swiss authorities at the request of the Pakistani government in 2008.
Since 2009, Pakistan's high court has repeatedly ordered the government to write a letter to Swiss authorities asking that the case against Zardari be reopened. Gilani and government lawyers have maintained they cannot write that letter because as president, Zardari has constitutional immunity that shields him from prosecution.
In issuing their ruling this week, the high court ordered Gilani to appear and explain why he has not complied with their requests. The prime minister's appearance in court Thursday gripped the nation, in part because of what was at stake _ if convicted of contempt, Gilani would be disqualified from office and could be sentenced to up to six months in jail.
A conviction of Zardari's prime minister would also deal a severe blow to the ruling Pakistan People's Party at a time when it finds itself under siege from the court, the country's powerful military and opposition leaders urging early elections.
To better position itself against what it sees as a hostile high court, the government chose as Gilani's lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan, a leader of the so-called Lawyers Movement that successfully fought for the reinstatement of Supreme Court justices ousted from the bench by Gen. Pervez Musharraf when he was the country's military ruler.
Ahsan told the seven-judge panel that he needed more time to pore through two years of documents to research the immunity issue, so that he could return to court and explain why Gilani's belief in immunity was justified.
The court continued the case until Feb. 1.
At the heart of the immunity issue is whether it affords all-encompassing or limited protection. The government maintains that the president cannot be charged with any crime while he remains in office, but some critics contend that protection applies only to Zardari's activities as president.
In the last two years, the high court had repeatedly urged Zardari's government to appear before it to legally defend its immunity claim. Up until Thursday, the government had consistently refused.
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The contempt proceeding is just one front Zardari's party is fighting as it tries to hang on to power until national elections in 2013.
The country's military, which historically has had an acrimonious relationship with Zardari, ratcheted up pressure on the president following allegations that Zardari's ambassador to the U.S. had sought Washington's intervention in fending off a military coup following the American raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan last May.
The ambassador, Husain Haqqani, resigned after the allegations surfaced but vehemently denies the claim. A Supreme Court-appointed commission is looking into the allegations, and a finding that Zardari engineered or authorized a memo seeking U.S. intervention could prove politically disastrous.
Analysts say Zardari's ultimate goal is for his government to survive until March, when a strong performance in Senate elections likely would bolster his party's clout in parliament and give it a boost ahead of the 2013 elections.
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