Pakistan Court Scores Victory Over Government

Published January 19, 2012 7:54AM (EST)

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan's top court scored a victory against the beleaguered government Thursday, when the lawyer for the country's prime minister agreed to debate whether the president enjoys immunity from prosecution on a past corruption case.

The Supreme Court gave Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani's attorney two weeks to prepare his argument. The government caved in after the court threatened Gilani with contempt charges for failing to reopen the decade-old case against his ally, President Asif Ali Zardari, and forced the premiere to make a rare appearance before the judges.

The legal tussle has added significant pressure to the government, at a time when it is also under attack from the country's powerful army. Speculation is rife that the combined assault could cause the government's downfall by forcing it to accept calls for early elections.

The government has long defied a 2009 Supreme Court order to write a letter to Swiss authorities asking them to reopen a corruption case against Zardari that dates back to the 1990s, claiming he enjoys immunity from prosecution while in office.

It had also ignored a demand to go before the court to argue the immunity claim, probably because members of the ruling party viewed the court's actions as a partisan campaign to take down Zardari, who has clashed with Supreme Court Chief Justice Mohammad Iftikhar Chaudhry.

Gilani told the court that he believes the president enjoys immunity while in office, and his lawyer, Aitzaz Ahsan, agreed to formally make that argument before the judges when the hearing against the prime minister resumes on Feb. 1.

"I will bow to the court order and will also speak on immunity to satisfy the court that the president has complete immunity," Ahsan told reporters after Thursday's session.

By Salon Staff

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