Pakistan’s Supreme Court sets collision course with new prime minister


Newly elected Pakistan's Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf, right, chats with Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, the leader of main coalition party of Pakistan Muslim League Quaid (PMLQ) during a meeting in Islamabad on June 22, 2012. (AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
June 27, 2012

Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Wednesday demanded that the nation’s new prime minister follow an order to reopen a long-dormant corruption case against President Asif Ali Zardari, setting up the likelihood of a continuing constitutional crisis.

The court last week disqualified from office Yousuf Raza Gilani, Pakistan’s longest-serving prime minister, whom it convicted of contempt in April because he refused to follow the same order.

The ruling party replaced Gilani with a former federal energy chief, Raja Pervez Ashraf, who has indicated that he will not comply with the order and faces his own set of corruption charges in a separate case before the high court.

Some political and legal observers have accused the court, headed by populist, corruption-battling Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, of working to destabilize an already shaky civilian government. Ashraf and his predecessor maintain that Pakistan’s constitution grants the president immunity from prosecution, but the court has consistently ruled otherwise, saying no one is above the law.

The legal and political upheaval has complicated U.S. efforts to broker a compromise with Pakistan to reopen vital NATO supply routes that pass into landlocked Afghanistan through Pakistani territory. The routes have been shut for more than seven months, creating a logistical headache not only for the Pentagon but also for other international forces, including France’s, that require access to Pakistan’s southern port to withdraw vast quantities of materiel from Afghanistan.

Zardari has denied the corruption allegations, which date to the 1990s and involve Swiss bank accounts held by the president and his late wife, Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister who was assassinated in 2007. Gilani for months refused to write a letter to Swiss authorities asking them to reopen graft and money-laundering cases against Zardari.

The court on Wednesday gave the new prime minister until July 12 to respond to its directive and offer any arguments as to why he need not pursue the corruption charges.

Some analysts predict that Ashraf will be in the job for only a few weeks — the time the court will take to consider his response and hand down a ruling that, observers say, will almost certainly require Ashraf to write the “Swiss letter.”

“The new prime minister is facing the same situation” as Gilani, said S.M. Zafar, a longtime lawyer in Islamabad. “He could write the letter, or he could take some middle ground that is acceptable to the court as well.

“But if that doesn’t happen, then I see a disaster in the coming days,” Zafar said. “The crisis would worsen further.”

Other analysts said that the court’s respect for the rule of law is admirable but that it also can go too far.

“There is a place for judicial activism in almost every country, particularly one in which the rule of law has all too often been conspicuous by its absence,” Mahir Ali, a columnist for the English-language newspaper Dawn, wrote Wednesday before the latest court ruling. “But the rule of law does not mean rule by the Supreme Court, which has no right to be a substitute for parliament.”

The public view of government leaders here remains exceedingly negative; Zardari was rated unfavorably by 85 percent of Paki­stanis polled in a Pew Global Attitudes survey whose results were released Wednesday, and only 34 percent approved of Gilani.

And not surprisingly, after a year of contentious dealings with the United States, about 74 percent of the respondents said they “consider the U.S. an enemy,” Pew said, up five points from last year’s survey. The public, which overwhelmingly opposes CIA drone strikes inside Pakistan, also offers dwindling support for joint efforts with the United States against Islamist extremists.

“Moreover, roughly four-in-ten believe that American economic and military aid is actually having a negative impact on their country, while only about one-in-ten think the impact is positive,” Pew said.

Pollsters said their sampling of 1,206 Pakistanis represented about 82 percent of the population. For security reasons, interviews were not conducted in several regions, including the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

The military continues to rank as the nation’s highest-regarded national institution, with 77 percent saying it has “a good influence on the country,” the report said.

Imran Khan, a cricket star turned politician who is pushing a fiery anti-corruption message in his campaign for prime minister, was again ranked most popular among national leaders. He was rated favorably by seven in 10 Pakistanis, essentially unchanged from last year.

Shaiq Hussain contributed to this report.

Richard Leiby is a senior writer in Post’s Style section. His previous assignments have included Pakistan Bureau Chief, and reporter, columnist and editor in Washington. He joined The Post in 1991.
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