ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan's Supreme Court vowed Thursday to charge the prime minister with contempt for his failure to reopen an old corruption case against the president, ramping up a destabilizing political crisis just as Washington seeks to rebuild a troubled anti-terror alliance with the country.
If convicted, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani could face six months in prison and the loss of his job.
The court ordered Gilani to appear before it on Jan. 13, when he will be charged.
The announcement was a major escalation in a case that has dogged the democratically elected government since 2009, when the Supreme Court ordered it write to Swiss authorities requesting they reopen a corruption case against President Asif Ali Zardar that dates to the late 1990s.
The government has refused, claiming the president enjoys immunity from prosecution while in office.
In early January, the judges threatened to hold Gilani in contempt if he didn't write the letter, and ordered him to make a rare appearance before the court to plead his case.
Gilani struck a conciliatory tone before the judges on Jan. 19, and his lawyer, Aitzaz Ahsan, agreed to argue the issue of the president's immunity when the hearing resumed. The government previously insisted presidential immunity was a right, and therefore didn't need to be debated in court.
But Ahsan appeared to do a U-turn, refusing to specifically address the issue of presidential immunity.
Instead, he simply argued that Gilani should not be held in contempt because his lawyers advised him he did not have to send the letter. The judges didn't accept that, and after five-hours of debate, said Gilani would be charged.
Ahsan said he would advise Gilani to appeal before Jan. 13, something that could draw out the proceedings further.
A defendant has the right to appeal in a contempt case in Pakistan even before a trial begins.
"It was my wish that there confrontation between institutions of the state should be avoided, but now the situation is looking tense," Ahsan told reporters outside the court.
Government supporters say the court is trying to oust Zardari because of enmity between the president and the chief justice. They also claim the case can't be separated from tensions between the government and the army, which has carried out three coups in the country's history. In those cases, the Supreme Court either stood by or legitimized the actions.
The court has also ordered an inquiry into a secret memo scandal that is also threatening Zardari.
The memo was allegedly sent to Washington by the government last year asking for help in stopping a supposed military coup. The government has denied the allegations, and the case appeared to lose steam last week when the main witness refused to come to Pakistan to testify.
The graft case against Zardari relates to kickbacks that he and his late wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, allegedly received from Swiss companies when Bhutto was in power. They were found guilty in absentia in a Swiss court in 2003. Zardari appealed, but Swiss prosecutors ended up dropping the case after the Pakistani parliament passed a bill giving the president and others immunity from old corruption cases that many agreed were politically motivated.
The Pakistani Supreme Court ruled the bill unconstitutional in 2009, triggering the slow moving process.
Since January, the case has consumed Pakistan's highly polarized political and media elite, deflecting attention from what many say are existential threats to the country like an ailing economy and a violent Islamist insurgency that is showing little sign of ebbing.
Relations between Islamabad and a vital donor, the United States, are at a low ebb after U.S. aircraft killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on the Afghan border last November, prompting Pakistan to close its border to U.S. and NATO supplies heading for Afghanistan.
The government say it is reevaluating its relationship with the United States as a result, and is facing domestic pressure not to reopen the supply lines.
Washington wants to rebuild ties with Pakistan because it needs the help of Pakistan's army in pushing the Taliban to make peace with the Afghan government. That would enable Washington to withdraw its troops without a civil war breaking out in the country.