- Associated Press - Monday, February 13, 2012

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) — The Supreme Court charged Pakistan‘s prime minister with contempt Monday for defying its order to reopen an old corruption case against the president, sharpening a political crisis that has shaken this already volatile country.

At a separate hearing, the top court also took on the country’s powerful army, demanding that two military intelligence agencies explain why they held seven suspected militants for 18 months in allegedly harsh conditions without charging them.

Prime MinisterYousuf Raza Gilani pleaded not guilty to the contempt charge. If convicted, he could be imprisoned and likely would lose his job. But analysts said the premier seems willing to sacrifice himself for the benefit of his party and his political ally, President Asif Ali Zardari.

Mr. Gilani’s ouster would not topple the government, but the case has distracted officials from dealing with a host of ills facing the nuclear-armed country, including a stuttering economy and a vicious Islamist insurgency.

The political turmoil also has been a problem for the United States because it wants Pakistan to focus on repairing troubled bilateral relations and help negotiate peace with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Mr. Gilani drove himself and his lawyer to court, an apparent attempt to show humility to the judges. Security was tight, with helicopters buzzing through the rainy, overcast sky and hundreds of police blocking roads leading to the court building in the capital, Islamabad.

One of the judges, Nasirul Mulk, read out the contempt charge, saying Mr. Gilani had “willfully flouted, disregarded and disobeyed the direction given by this court.”

The prime minister, who was surrounded by his Cabinet members and coalition partners, said he understood the charge and would contest it. The move was the formal start to a process that will take months or weeks to conclude. The next session will be on Feb. 22.

Court supporters have applauded the judges for upholding the rule of law, but government loyalists accuse the chief justice of pursuing a personal vendetta against the president.

The case against Mr. Zardari relates to kickbacks he and his late wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, allegedly received from Swiss companies when Bhutto was in power in the 1990s. They were found guilty in absentia in a Swiss court in 2003.

Mr. Zardari appealed, but Swiss prosecutors dropped the case after the Pakistani Parliament passed an ordinance giving the president and others immunity from old corruption cases that many agreed were politically motivated.

The bill was decried by many in Pakistan, who saw it as an attempt to subvert the law. The Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in 2009 and also ordered the government to write a letter to Swiss authorities requesting they reopen the case. The government has refused, saying the president enjoys immunity from prosecution while in office.

Analysts said Mr. Gilani seems unlikely to bend to the court’s demands and likely will be convicted and lose his job. The national assembly would then vote for a new prime minister, but the process could drag for months.

Most legal experts think the president would be in no immediate danger even if Mr. Gilani did ask Swiss authorities to reopen the case.

Last year, a Swiss prosecutor told the media that Switzerland couldn’t bring proceedings against Mr. Zardari because he has immunity as a head of state.

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