Pakistan's Supreme Court vs. Everybody, but Most of All the Prime Minister

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Ahmad Kamal / Xinhua Press / Corbis

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani waves as he arrives at the Supreme Court in Islamabad, Pakistan on Feb. 13, 2012.

When Yousaf Raza Gilani was elected as Pakistan's Prime Minister four years ago, his first act was to release the top judges who were under house arrest under orders from Pakistan's then ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf. On Monday, the very same judges indicted Gilani on charges of contempt of court for failing to pursue allegations of corruption against his boss, President Asif Ali Zardari. If Gilani is convicted, he will be disqualified from parliament and could face up to six months behind bars.

Gilani seems braced for the occasion. "If I'm convicted," the prime minister told Al-Jazeera in an interview on the eve of his court appearance, "then I'm not supposed to be a member of parliament." Earlier, the Supreme Court denied his appeal against the contempt charges. On Monday, Gilani made a second appearance at the court, waving enthusiastically at the small crowd of supporters that had gathered to cheer on his defiance.

Despite the court's apparent determination to press ahead with the high-profile case, there is little prospect of Zardari's government falling. If the court finds Gilani guilty, legal experts say, it won't be any time soon. The case could drag on for the next few weeks, averting any sudden crisis. And in the event that Gilani is convicted, the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) can name a replacement and hold on to its coalition government.

But the crisis will consume the energies of an already weak, unpopular and shaky government. As survival becomes a priority, other pressing concerns such as Pakistan's crucial fight against militancy, its faltering economy, and its desperate energy shortages will be neglected.

The Supreme Court has been angered by Gilani's stubborn refusals to comply with its demands — which consist of writing a letter to Swiss authorities, urging them to reopen old corruption charges against Zardari. In 2009, the court struck down an amnesty against corruption charges for the President issued by Musharraf, clearing the way for corruption charges to be revived.

For the government and its supporters, the Supreme Court's actions amount to little more than a judicial coup in slow motion. Casting a withering eye at the court's record, they say that the judges have concentrated their ire against the government while mostly sparing the military and the political opposition. The PPP also has a history of the hostility toward the judiciary, stretching back to party founder Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's hanging in 1979 on a trumped-up murder charge.

Zardari's corruption charges have come back into focus at the same time as the court is investigating an American businessman's claims that his former ambassador to Washington orchestrated a "treasonous" memo, calling on the U.S. military to rein in their Pakistani counterparts and avert a coup in the days following the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. The case was brought forward by the political opposition led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and is backed by the powerful military.

Despite the fact that the former envoy resigned and the accusing businessman has failed to appear in Pakistan to testify, the Supreme Court is keeping the case open, to the government's fury. The court's indulgence, government supporters say, is further evidence of a shadowy nexus that unites the generals, the opposition, the media and the courts against the government.

The government also appears to be girding itself for the worst outcome, casting itself as a political victim — something that could help rally the ruling party's base at the next elections. They are determined not to incriminate Zardari by writing the letter to the Swiss authorities. If Gilani is no longer able to remain prime minister, the PPP is discussing the possibility of appointing Makhdoom Shahabuddin, another politician from southern Punjab. If Shahabuddin ends up being disqualified, too, the PPP may use that "victimization" to enhance its standing in the politically crucial battleground of southern Punjab.

In a landscape where the army still bears the stains of Musharraf's dictatorship, and where politicians are perceived as inept, distant and venal, the Supreme Court can claim a rare source of much-prized "moral authority." When the prominent politician Mushahid Hussain was asked during a lecture in Karachi who was ruling the country, he said that it was the Chief Justice.

At the same time, many independent legal experts still see the court as tilting the playing field. Last month, when rumors coursed through Islamabad suggesting that the government could sack the military chiefs, the court demanded confirmation that no move would be made against the army. The move challenged the government's prerogative of appointing military chiefs.

"The Supreme Court in Pakistan is a completely new axis that has emerged," says Vali Nasr, professor of international politics at Tufts University. However, despite its decisions that favored the military establishment, the court isn't the best friend of the generals at all. In recent weeks, the court has decided to summon top intelligence officials and question them about the illegal detention of terrorism suspects — a move that lends some balance to its decisions. It will also, later this month, hear a case from the early 1990s that alleges the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency supported select candidates in an effort to destabilize the PPP. The military, says Nasr, has "periodically been on a collision course with the Supreme Court."

The court's supporters see its behavior as that of a flourishing independent judiciary. After being sacked twice by Musharraf, Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry was reinstated after popular lawyer-led demonstrations forced Zardari and Gilani's government to capitulate to the demands. The army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, also made a discreet intervention in support of Chaudhry. Chaudhry is sometimes described by critics as a vain and arrogant judge who is exercising outsized influence. Since his return to the bench in 2009, the chief justice has displayed a rare enthusiasm for judicial activism. His interests have ranged from a baffling decision to punish a famous actress for allegedly carrying two bottles of wine, to challenging the hold that armed groups have over the large, volatile port city of Karachi.

Gilani appears willing to suffer any blows a confrontation with the judiciary may deliver. As he is keen to point out, he has already spent five years in jail under Musharraf's rule for what many saw as politically slanted charges. A return to prison for a few more months is the political price he seems willing to pay. If anything, it may ensure that his government lasts until next month's senate elections, where the ruling PPP is poised to secure the highest number of seats.

As for Zardari, the corruption cases against him are unlikely to be reopened even if the government decides to capitulate and write to the Swiss authorities. Under Pakistan's constitution, Zardari enjoys presidential immunity and cannot face charges at home or abroad. And he has already spent over 11 years behind bars for a range of charges that have never been proven.

The most immediate victim is likely to be the government's ability to function, beset by potential changes in leadership and paralysis. For the economic and security basket case of South Asia, that is not good news.