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 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 Mr. 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.
The government may be heartened by the Supreme Court’s decision not to make any immediate moves to hold Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Zardari, who has clashed with Supreme Court Chief Justice Mohammad Iftikhar Chaudhry.
Mr. Gilani delivered a nearly 10-minute speech on Thursday to the seven-judge bench. The prime minister expressed respect for the court and said he never intended to “ridicule” the judges. He said it was his belief that Mr. Zardari “has complete immunity inside and outside the country.”
Mr. 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,” Mr. 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 Mr. 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.
Mr. 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.
Mr. Zardari said recently that the government would never sent the letter to the Swiss reopening the case because it would dishonour Bhutto.
Many legal experts agree that Mr. Zardari does enjoy immunity from the Swiss corruption case while in office, but the judges gave no indication on Thursday of where they stood.