Islamabad: Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani came out of the Supreme Court smiling today. He had earned himself a reprieve - the court has given the civilian government time till February 1 to respond to it on the issue of re-opening of graft cases against President Asif Ali Zardari. And it has exempted the PM from appearing in court at the next hearing.
Mr Gilani appeared in his country's Supreme Court today after being summoned to answer a contempt of court notice for not re-opening the corruption cases against Zardari. He told the court that he had the highest respect for the judiciary and that he could not think of committing contempt of court. He also sought a month's time to respond to the court, but got only two weeks.
Not that it was easy. The Supreme Court adjourned hearing till February 1, after asking why the government had been silent on the issue for two years. The court also observed that Mr Gilani could in fact gather records and documents that he needed in two days and did not need a month
The world watched keenly as, in a court packed with world media, Mr Gilani struck a conciliatory note, but also sought to make a statement of political strength. Ignoring security protocols, the 59-year-old Gilani, dressed in a dark suit, drove a white Land Cruiser bearing registration number LRZ-786, a number representing "Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim", to the hearing.
At the Supreme Court, he waved to the crowds gathered and then bounded up 30 odd steps to reach Court number 4 for the hearing. Helicopters hovered above, and present in court were top leaders including Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, Interior Minister Rehman Malik, Asfandyar Wali Khan of the Awami National Party, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain of the PML-Q and Punjab Governor Latif Khosa. There was also slogan shouting in the court.
Mr Gilani's lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan told the court that Presidents around the world enjoy immunity and the "Pakistani constitution gives immunity to our President." Since December 2009, the top court has been pressuring the PPP-led government to reopen the graft cases after striking down the National Reconciliation Ordinance, a graft amnesty that was issued by former military ruler Pervez Musharraf in 2007. The government has refused to act on the order, saying the President enjoys immunity under the constitution.
Mr Gilani has spent much of this month in uncertainty over his government's survival. The government's confrontation with the judiciary over reviving the corruption cases against Mr Zardari has reached a head at a time when it is also engaged in a face-off with the powerful military over the memogate scandal involving a memo that allegedly sought US help to prevent a military coup after the killing of Osama bin Laden in May last year. A Supreme Court-appointed judicial commission is conducting a probe into the memo scandal.
This week, Mr Gilani, whose tussle with the military has been wordy, received the backing of Parliament, when it passed his pro-democracy resolution. The resolution sought to assert the supremacy of Parliament over all other institutions including the executive and the judiciary. In his speech in the National Assembly, Mr Gilani urged the judiciary and military to protect democracy despite differences with his government. The judiciary and military, he said, could not "pack up" or derail the democratic system.
It was hours before that trust vote in Parliament on Monday that Mr Gilani was issued the contempt of court notice and was summoned to appear in person before the seven-judge Supreme Court bench.
This is the third occasion that a Pakistani premier has been issued contempt notice by the top court. The other premiers who faced similar action by the court were Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif.
Ahead of today's hearing, security agencies closed off the high-security Red Zone that is home to the Supreme Court and other buildings like parliament and presidency. Hundreds of policemen and parliamentary personnel were deployed in the area to create the three-tier security ring. The road in front of the top court was closed at midnight. Nearly 100 members of the Pakistani and foreign media were issued passes to cover the court proceedings. (With PTI Inputs)