PM’s appeal rejection
With the dismissal by an eight-member bench of the Supreme Court (SC) of Prime Minister (PM) Yousaf Raza Gilani’s inter-court appeal against the February 2 order of a seven-member bench of the apex court hearing the contempt case against the PM, the die is cast for a contempt trial of the chief executive. The eight-member bench headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry upheld the seven-member bench’s order as properly framed under and conforming to the provisions of clause 17(3) of the Contempt of Court Ordinance 2003. Therefore the bench rejected any need to intervene and thereby dismissed the inter-court appeal. The PM will now appear before the original seven-member bench tomorrow, February 13, for charges to be framed against him. If the PM, as all indications so far point to, sticks to his stand that no contempt was envisaged and he was simply following the repeated advice from the Law Ministry that no letter can be written to the Swiss judicial authorities to reopen the case against President Asif Ali Zardari as the president enjoys immunity while in office under Pakistani (Article 248), Swiss and international law, he may well be charged and a trial then proceed. All the signs point to the PM contesting the charges through his counsel, Aitzaz Ahsan.
The issue has two facets: legal and political. While the SC is insisting the letter of the law as reflected in its December 16, 2009 judgment on the NRO case be followed, and central to that is the repeated direction of the court that the PM write the letter to the Swiss authorities, the ruling PPP is seized of the political implications of following the directions of the SC. Aitzaz Ahsan had based his inter-court appeal argument on two pillars. One, that he and his client were not allowed sufficient time to present their point of view; two, the impossibility of adhering to the court’s direction in the light of the immunity enjoyed by the president, as advised by the Law Ministry. Although Aitzaz avoided discussion on the immunity issue, which the court had said again and again needed to be applied for to the court, a bare reading of Article 248 of the constitution does lend credence to the immunity defence. The wording of the article in question is clear, unambiguous, and arguably needing little if any interpretation. The political aspect of the issue is the perception of the PPP that for the PM to write such a letter to the Swiss authorities while ignoring the immunity enjoyed by a sitting president would be tantamount to damaging the political standing of the party. It should not be forgotten that the president is also the co-chairperson of the PPP.
If the above interpretation of the PPP’s thinking is correct, it seems the party is prepared, if worst comes to worst, to sacrifice its PM for the sake of saving its political reputation. Nay, even further, the possible conviction and disqualification of the PM from holding office will provide a rallying cry of victimisation to the PPP in the run up to the general elections, something that may leave it in better standing with the electorate since its palette of achievements over the last four years is thin, to say the least. Despite the removal of PM Yousaf Raza Gilani, the government is unlikely to fall so long as it enjoys a majority in the National Assembly. Theoretically, the party could nominate a new PM as replacement. Such a development could arguably continue the legal battle in the SC if the court then orders the new PM to write the letter according to its directives. It goes without saying therefore that the issue’s fallout is unlikely to end soon, with implications for political stability and democracy and a troubled future looming on the horizon.