- Associated Press - Monday, February 13, 2012

ISLAMABAD — 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 Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani pleaded not guilty to the contempt charge. If convicted, he could be imprisoned and will likely lose his job.

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 has also 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 weeks or months 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 Mrs. 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 Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in 2009, and 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.