Pakistani PM agrees to court demand in graft case

Associated Press
Pakistan's Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf waves upon arriving at the Supreme Court for a hearing where he will submit his reply regarding the court's order to reopen an old corruption case against the country's president, in Islamabad, Pakistan on Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2012. (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)
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ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan's prime minister told the Supreme Court on Tuesday that the government would comply with a longstanding demand to reopen an old corruption case against the president, defusing a conflict that has roiled the country's political system and led to the ouster of the last premier.

President Asif Ali Zardari is likely in little immediate danger from the case in Switzerland, where he is recognized as enjoying immunity from prosecution as a foreign head of state.

But the decision came as somewhat of a surprise to many in Pakistan, given the government had refused for months to follow the court's order to write a letter to Swiss authorities asking them to reopen the case.

Both sides have come under public criticism for their focus on the case, rather than dealing with what are perceived as more serious problems facing the country, such as the weak economy, pervasive electricity shortages and a bloody Taliban insurgency.

Pakistani Law Minister Farooq Naek recently traveled to Switzerland to talk to officials about the case, and analysts said the government may have decided the risk of the Swiss reopening the proceedings was low enough to write a carefully worded letter.

"My view is that the government would never write a letter if they had not foreclosed any risk from doing so," said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a political science professor at Lahore University of Management Sciences. "They seem to be certain that nothing will happen to the president, and even if there is a slight chance the case is reopened, they will be able to invoke presidential immunity."

Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf said he finally ordered the law minister to write to the Swiss "in the larger interest of the country, in the larger interest of the people of Pakistan and in the larger interest of the integrity of Pakistan."

"I don't want to be seen standing on the wrong side of the history," Ashraf said, appearing before the judges.

Rais, the political science professor, said both the government and the court seemed exhausted by the conflict over the case and were seeking a way to move forward.

"The case is irrelevant compared to the enormous problems of law and order, energy, governance and the effectiveness of the judiciary in other cases," said Rais.

The case relates to millions of dollars in kickbacks that Zardari and his late wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, allegedly received from Swiss companies when she was in power in the 1990s.

Pakistan was originally a civil party to the case because it was trying to reclaim the money. But it withdrew in 2008 after the Pakistani government issued an ordinance giving Zardari and other politicians immunity from prosecution in old corruption cases.

The Supreme Court declared the ordinance unconstitutional in 2009 and demanded the government write a letter to the Swiss to reopen the case, but it refused, citing the president's immunity from prosecution while in office. The prime minister said Tuesday that the letter written by the law minister would ask the Swiss to ignore the government's previous withdrawal from the case.

The Swiss indicated last year that they have no plans to continue with the case, at least while Zardari is in office.

The Pakistani government's supporters have accused the Supreme Court of relentlessly pursuing the case because of bad blood between Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and Zardari.

The judges convicted former Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani of contempt of court for refusing to follow their orders and ousted him from office in June. The government then rallied support in parliament to elect the current prime minister.

The lead judge hearing the case, Asif Saeed Khosa, has struck a more conciliatory tone this time around, possibly because of public criticism of the court for actions that could lead to the downfall of the first civilian government poised to finish its five-year term in the country's history. Past governments were toppled by direct or indirect intervention by the country's powerful army, often with help of the judiciary.

The current government's term ends in early 2013. There is little chance of a coup, but some expected the government would be forced to call early elections.

Khosa thanked the prime minister Tuesday for giving "us a commitment to make serious, sincere efforts to implement the orders of the court." He gave the government until Sept. 25 to write the letter to the Swiss.

The move could leave Zardari open to the risk of prosecution after his term ends in 2013. But there has also been debate about whether the case's statute of limitations will have expired by then.

Also on Tuesday, a roadside bomb ripped through a passenger bus carrying Shiite Muslims in southwestern Pakistan, killing at least three and injuring 10 others, local police official Buland Khan said. The bomb targeted minority Shiites pilgrims who were traveling to Iran.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, but Sunni extremists, who often do not believe that Shiites are true Muslims, have carried out scores of such attacks on them in Baluchistan in recent years.

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Associated Press writers Zarar Khan and Sebastian Abbot contributed to this report.

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