(ISLAMABAD, Pakistan) — Pakistan’s longest serving prime minister was charged with contempt of court on Monday, triggering proceedings that could paralyze an already weak government and lead to his removal from office.
Even if Yousuf Raza Gilani is convicted and thrown in jail, that is not expected to cause the government to fall, and important Senate elections will almost certainly proceed in early March. Still, the Pakistan People’s Party continues to struggle to govern a country suffering from an economic crisis and ongoing violence. The contempt proceedings are likely to further divert attention from critical subjects, including a new set of rules of engagement with the U.S.
You “have willfully flouted, disregarded, and disobeyed instructions given by this court,” read Justice Nasir ul-Mulk, the head of a seven-judge panel of Pakistan’s highest court. “You have committed contempt of court … and you are to be tried.”
In 2009, the Court demanded that the government invite Switzerland to reopen corruption charges against President Asif Ali Zardari, who was accused of laundering money through Swiss banks. Gilani has refused, arguing that Zardari maintains immunity so long as he is president, and that the cases, which led to guilty findings in the 1990s, were politically motivated.
On Monday, Gilani appeared in court and pleaded not guilty. His trial will begin later this month and will likely be dragged on for weeks, if not months.
“I am sanguine that the court will show restraint,” said Punjab governor Latif Khosa, a senior member of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party and a former attorney general.
Even though Monday did not bring the downfall of the government, as some Pakistani media had suggested, it was still a historic challenge to the country’s fragile democracy. Gilani is the first sitting prime minister to be indicted with contempt of court and some fear that the court is trying to bring the government down, perhaps in collusion with the country’s powerful military.
“This democratic dispensation — regardless of its own faults, regardless of its own omissions — it has had to face a lot of pressure, from Rawalpindi, from Apbarra,” said Ayaz Amir, a columnist and an opposition member of parliament, referring to the headquarters of the military and its premier intelligence service. “It will be some time before we can say that look here, the tree of democracy has struck deep and strong roots, and it is there to stand.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Chieu Luu and Huizhong Wu, CNN
Don Melvin, Joshua Berlinger and Eliott C. McLaughlin, CNN Newswire