Pakistan premier offers olive branch in long-running conflict with Supreme Court

Until now the Pakistani government has always insisted that President Asif Ali Zardari, pictured, enjoys immunity.

Story highlights

  • The Supreme Court wants old corruption charges reopened against the president
  • Ashraf says the government is now willing to contact Switzerland about the charges
  • The judges welcome the move and ask to see a version of the letter
  • The court forced the previous prime minister from office over the issue
Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf of Pakistan told the country's Supreme Court on Tuesday that the government is prepared to contact Swiss authorities to give them leeway to reopen old corruption charges against President Asif Ali Zardari.
The comments appear to be an effort by Zardari's political party to appease the Supreme Court justices in a long-running conflict between the civilian government and the judiciary that has already brought down one prime minister.
The judges have been demanding for years that the Pakistani authorities write to Switzerland to request that the charges against Zardari be revived. But up until now, the government had steadfastly refused, insisting Zardari enjoys immunity as president.
The court found Ashraf's predecessor, Yousuf Raza Gilani, guilty of contempt earlier this year for his refusal to act on the matter and ousted him from office. With Ashraf facing similar proceedings, the government seems to have adopted a more conciliatory line.
"It's the sensible thing to do," said Ahmed Mehboob, the head of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development, an Islamabad-based political research organization. "The government could have done this a long time ago and saved the country a lot of trouble."
The judges welcomed Ashraf's statement and requested that Law and Justice Minister Farooq H. Naek submit a version of the letter to the Swiss authorities to the court on September 25.
"We appreciate the efforts made by the prime minister to resolve the longstanding issue," said Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, the head of the five judges at the hearing Tuesday. Ashraf will not have to attend the next hearing on the case, the court said.
The possibility remains that the government's letter will not satisfy the judges, and that Tuesday's move is just a ploy to gain some breathing space. But Mehboob said he thought that was unlikely.
"My feeling is the government doesn't have much space to move right now," he said. "The court is not going to postpone this much longer."
Ashraf's pledge to act is almost certain to have the approval of Zardari, who is the head of the governing Pakistan Peoples Party.
The prime minister is a staunch party loyalist.
"This is a climbdown for Zardari, but it shows that he can flexible and accommodating and ready to make deals," Mehboob said.
Ashraf told the court that he had asked Naek to "withdraw the letter written by former Attorney General, Malik Qayum, to Swiss authorities."
Zardari is the widower of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in December 2007 during a campaign stop.
When Bhutto was prime minister, Zardari was accused so many times of corruption, stealing from government coffers and accepting kickbacks that Pakistanis derisively labeled him "Mr. 10%."
The corruption cases that the Supreme Court now wants reopened stem from money-laundering charges against Zardari and Bhutto. A Swiss court convicted them in absentia in 2003 of laundering millions of dollars.
In 2007, Qayyum wrote a letter asking Switzerland to close corruption cases against Zardari after the Pakistani president at the time, Pervez Musharraf, granted immunity to Zardari and hundreds of other politicians.
The Pakistani Supreme Court declared the immunity unconstitutional in 2009, saying Qayyum's letter was "unauthorized and illegal."
With the concession by the Pakistani government Tuesday, the justices finally appears to be getting their way on the issue. But even if Naek's letter meets with their approval and is sent, there is no guarantee the Swiss authorities will actually revive the corruption charges.
"As long as Mr. Zardari is president, I don't think these cases will be reopened, unless the government waives off the constitutional immunity for the president," said Mehboob.