- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 25, 2012

ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's government told the Supreme Court on Wednesday that it will not reopen an old corruption case against the president, defying a judicial order that has already brought down one prime minister and now threatens his replacement.

The crisis has roiled Pakistan’s political system for months, distracting attention from what many in the nation believe are more pressing problems, such as the country’s ailing economy and fight against the Taliban.

The dispute centers on a graft case in a Swiss court against President Asif Ali Zardari dating to the late 1990s. The Pakistani Supreme Court has demanded that the government write a letter to Swiss authorities asking them to reopen the case. The government has refused, saying Mr. Zardari has immunity from prosecution while in office.

Mr. Zardari is in little immediate danger of being tried. The Swiss have indicated they have no plans to continue with the case, at least not while the president is in office, but the Supreme Court appears to consider it unacceptable for the government to ignore judicial orders.

The court convicted then-Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani of contempt in April and ousted him from office two months later for refusing to write the letter. The ruling Pakistan People’s Party rallied support to elect a new premier, Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, and has continued to reject the court’s decision.

Pakistan’s attorney general, Irfan Qadir, appeared before the court Wednesday and told the judges that Mr. Ashraf also refused to reopen the case because of the president’s immunity.

“Your order is not implementable,” said Mr. Qadir.

Judge Asif Sayeed Khosa reiterated his demand that the new prime minister write the letter to the Swiss, but also seemed to soften the court’s stance, adjourning the hearing until Aug. 8 to give the government more time to come up with a solution.

The judge’s somewhat softer stance could be a reaction to criticism of the court for actions that could lead to the downfall of the first civilian government poised to finish its five-year term in the country’s history. Past governments were toppled by direct or indirect intervention by the country’s powerful army, often with help of the judiciary.

The current government’s term ends in early 2013. There is little chance of a coup, but the government might have to call early elections.

It is unclear, however, what sort of compromise could end the crisis. Mr. Zardari has said in the past that his government will never write the letter.

A Swiss court convicted in absentia Mr. Zardari and his late wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, for allegedly receiving kickbacks from Swiss companies when Mrs. Bhutto was in power in the 1990s.

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 that law unconstitutional in 2009 and ordered the government to write a letter to Swiss authorities requesting they reopen the case, which set the stage for the current standoff.