Pakistan PM Gilani stands firm in contempt battle

Owen Bennett-Jones says Mr Gilani told the court he had the highest regard for it but could not comply with its wishes

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has appeared before the country's Supreme Court in contempt proceedings, to defend his record.

The court initiated the hearing over Mr Gilani's refusal to ask Swiss officials to reopen a corruption case against President Asif Ali Zardari.

If found guilty of contempt he could be banned from holding public office.

A stand-off between the government, the judiciary and the military threatens to topple Mr Gilani's government.

After a hearing lasting little more than an hour the case was adjourned until 1 February.

Mr Gilani smiled and waved as he arrived at the Supreme Court, accompanied by his legal team and senior cabinet ministers.

Analysis

The courtroom and the media gallery were jam-packed as Prime Minister Gilani made his appearance, backed by some of his ministers and leaders of party allies.

He delivered his statement as the judges listened cautiously. They heard him out in silence and there were no interruptions.

Mr Gilani stood his ground, arguing that he was acting in line with the constitution, but he was dignified and respectful towards the judges. One judge even said it was a great day as the prime minister had "submitted to the majesty of the law", and "we should be proud of this".

But there are no clear signs this marks a thaw in the recent political face-off between Mr Gilani's government and the judiciary, which many believe is backed by the military.

The government has managed to buy some time and seems be trying to involve the court in lengthier, more complicated discussions.

In a lengthy opening statement to the seven judges, he spoke of his respect for the court and the Pakistani constitution.

He said he had not intended to defy the court but that he believed Mr Zardari had presidential immunity from prosecution.

"I have discussed this with my friends and experts, and they all agree that he has got complete immunity," Mr Gilani said.

"It will not give a good message to proceed against a president who is elected by a two-thirds majority."

He said it would not be a good idea to throw the president to the "wolves".

Regardless of the outcome, one of the judges said ''it was a great day for Pakistan, that the chief executive had bowed before the majesty of the law".

Mr Gilani's embattled government is currently embroiled in disputes with the judiciary and also with Pakistan's powerful armed forces.

The prime minister sounded conciliatory at the hearing but his appearance was intended to be a show of strength for the government, says the BBC's Aleem Maqbool in Islamabad.

'No harm'

Mr Gilani has long refused to request the Swiss authorities to reopen the corruption case against President Zardari, as the Supreme Court has demanded.

But his lawyer, Aitzaz Ahsan, indicated on Wednesday that the prime minister might reverse that stance.

"There is no harm in writing a letter to the Swiss authorities," he said.

"The president has complete immunity against criminal procedures in the courts."

He added: "I don't think the prime minister has committed contempt of court by not writing the letter. Through my arguments I will try to convince the court that the prime minister is not guilty of contempt."

If convicted, Mr Gilani would face a prison term and be disqualified from office, potentially forcing early elections.

Meanwhile, former President Pervez Musharraf has indicated he intends to stick to a promise to return in late January from self-imposed exile to run in elections, which are due by 2013.

He told the BBC he wanted to seek "the mandate of the people", despite facing arrest on his return to face accusations that he did not provide adequate security for former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto when she was assassinated in late 2007.

On Wednesday, Interior Minister Rehman Malik said Gen Musharraf would be arrested if he returned to the country.

Money laundering

Mr Zardari and his late wife, Benazir Bhutto, were found guilty in absentia by a Swiss court in 2003 of laundering millions of dollars in kickbacks from Swiss firms while they were in government.

They appealed and Swiss officials dropped the case in 2008 at the request of the Pakistani government.

The case was one of thousands dropped as a result of an amnesty that allowed Ms Bhutto to return from self-imposed exile and run for election in 2008. She was assassinated shortly after returning.

However, in 2009 Pakistan's Supreme Court declared the amnesty unconstitutional, leaving those covered by it open to prosecution.

The government is also engaged in a dispute with the military over an anonymous memo asking for US help to avert a possible army coup in Pakistan. The memo was sent in the wake of the killing of Osama Bin Laden in a US raid in May 2011.

US officials have acknowledged receiving the memo but say they took no action over it.

Both disputes have overshadowed Pakistan's deteriorating relationship with Washington following US air strikes that accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November.

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