‘Respect judiciary, but Zardari enjoys immunity’

Pak PM was in court to explain why he should not be charged with contempt for failing to re-open corruption cases against Zardari.

Zeenews Bureau

Islamabad: Pakistan`s Supreme Court on Thursday adjourned a contempt hearing for Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani in a case that could push him from office and is adding to growing pressure on the unpopular civilian government.

Gilani was in court to explain why he should not be charged with contempt for failing to re-open old corruption cases against President Asif Ali Zardari. The government maintains Zardari has presidential immunity.

In what is being seen as a breather to Gilani, the apex court has adjourned the hearing till February 01 and exempted him from personal appearance on future dates.

Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, who spoke after Gilani`s seven-minute submission in the court, described it as a great day for Pakistan.

However, the court raised the question why the government had not acted on its past orders to reopen the cases of alleged money laundering against Zardari in Switzerland after the National Reconciliation Ordinance, a graft amnesty passed by former president Pervez Musharraf, was struck down in 2009.

Gilani, who was served a contempt notice on January 16, said, "It will not give a good message to proceed against a President who is elected by a two-thirds majority".

"I have discussed this with my friends and experts, and they all agree that he has got complete immunity," Dawn quoted the Prime Minister as saying.

"It is my conviction that he (Zardari) has complete immunity inside and outside the country," Gilani told the court. "In the Constitution, there is complete immunity for the President. There is no doubt about that."

Moreover, presidents of all the countries around the world too have immunity, he pointed out in an extempore statement before the seven-judge bench headed by Justice Nasir-ul-Mulk.

The Prime Minister, however, appeared not to have convinced some judges.

"On the next date, let`s hear you convince us the issue is of the President`s immunity," said Justice Sarmad Osmani, a member of the seven-panel bench. "Let`s grab the bull by its horns."

The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) had in 1998 accused Zardari and the late Benazir Bhutto of awarding a pre-shipment inspection contract to the Societe Generale Surveillance (SGS). This was done in return for six percent commission on the total amount the company received from the Pakistan government, it claimed.

Earlier in August 2008, Swiss judicial authorities, acting on the request of the Pakistani government, had closed a money laundering case against Zardari and released USD 60 million frozen in Swiss accounts.

`I respect judiciary`

Appearing before the Supreme Court, Pakistan`s embattled PM said he has complete respect for judiciary and cannot think of committing any contempt.

Backed by top lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan, a barrister, the 59-year-old Prime Minister, the second premier in office to appear before a court in contempt proceedings, said former prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and his wife Nusrat Bhutto also appeared before the courts.

The PM said he had spent six years in prison and had never been reluctant to appear before the court that shows that he always respected the court, Geo News reported.

Gilani counsel’s defence

Gilani`s lawyer Ahsan, one of Pakistan`s leading legal experts, told the bench that the President enjoyed immunity under both the country`s Constitution and the Vienna Conventions.

Ahsan said the apex court should not force the government to write a letter to the Swiss government that becomes a joke, and creates a situation whereby the Swiss authorities say they cannot act against Zardari as he is protected by the Vienna Conventions.

The bench asked Ahsan if the government would contact the Swiss authorities if it is proved that the President does not have immunity. Ahsan then sought a month`s time to study the records of the case. Justice Nasir-ul-Mulk responded, saying that access to records could be provided in two days` time.

The bench then directed Ahsan to submit a detailed reply at the next hearing on February 01.

Ahsan told the court that the current proceedings pertained to the contempt notice and he intended to argue that the Premier had not committed contempt of court. The reasons for not acting on the court`s past orders could be explained by the law secretary, he said.

Talking to reporters after the hearing, Ahsan said he intended to satisfy the court that "under Article 248 of the Constitution, the (President’s) immunity in this case is complete".

He added that Gilani has "accepted majesty of the law".

The Prime Minister, who himself drove down to the court complex, smiled and waved after coming out of the court.

Though a lot of hype had been generated about the Premier`s appearance in the court, the proceedings were completed without much drama in about 90 minutes. After the hearing, a group of unruly lawyers created a commotion outside the main entrance of the apex court by shouting slogans in support of the judiciary and against Ahsan.

The Premier`s security detail asked him to leave the court through a side entrance due to the protest by the lawyers but he insisted on coming out of the main door and driving away in his white SUV with Interior Minister Rehman Malik.

Earlier, top leaders of Pakistan`s ruling coalition, including several federal ministers, gathered at the Supreme Court amidst tight security to extend support to Gilani.

Among those who came to the court were Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, Interior Minister Malik, Asfandyar Wali Khan of the Awami National Party, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain of the PML-Q and Punjab Governor Latif Khosa.

This is the third occasion that a Pakistani premier has been issued a contempt notice by the apex court. The other premiers who faced similar action by the court were Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif.

Before the proceedings began at 9.30 am, security agencies closed off the high-security Red Zone that is home to the Supreme Court and other buildings like the parliament and presidency.

Hundreds of policemen and parliamentary personnel were deployed in the area to create a three-tier security ring. The road in front of the apex court was closed at midnight. Nearly 100 members of the Pakistani and foreign media were issued passes to cover the court proceedings. Gilani`s motorcade drove the short distance from the Premier`s official residence to the Supreme Court at about
9.25 am as helicopters mounted surveillance over the centre of the city. Gilani drove his white SUV into the court complex with his lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan sitting beside him in the front seat.

The Premier waved to the large crowd that had gathered outside the court several times before walking inside. He was accompanied by some federal ministers.

After entering the building through a walk-through security gate, Gilani walked a short distance and climbed a set of stairs to enter courtroom number 4 where the proceedings were held.

(With Agencies’ inputs)