ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan‘s prime minister told the Supreme Court on Tuesday that the government would comply with a longstanding demand to reopen an old corruption case against the president, defusing a conflict that has roiled the country’s political system and led to the ouster of the previous premier.
President Asif Ali Zardari is likely in little immediate danger from the case in Switzerland, where he is recognized as enjoying immunity from prosecution as a foreign head of state.
But the decision came as somewhat of a surprise to many in Pakistan, given that the government had refused for months to follow the court’s order to write a letter to Swiss authorities asking them to reopen the case.
Both sides have come under public criticism for their focus on the case, rather than dealing with what are perceived as more serious problems facing the country, such as the weak economy, pervasive electricity shortages and a bloody Taliban insurgency.
Pakistani Law Minister Farooq Naek recently traveled to Switzerland to talk to officials about the case, and analysts said the government may have decided the risk of the Swiss reopening the proceedings was low enough to write a carefully worded letter.
“My view is that the government would never write a letter if they had not foreclosed any risk from doing so,” said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a political science professor at Lahore University of Management Sciences. “They seem to be certain that nothing will happen to the president, and even if there is a slight chance the case is reopened, they will be able to invoke presidential immunity.”
Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf said he finally ordered the law minister to write to the Swiss “in the larger interest of the country, in the larger interest of the people of Pakistan and in the larger interest of the integrity of Pakistan.”
“I don’t want to be seen standing on the wrong side of the history,” Mr. Ashraf said, appearing before the judges.
“The case is irrelevant compared to the enormous problems of law and order, energy, governance and the effectiveness of the judiciary in other cases,” Mr. Rais said.
The case relates to millions of dollars in kickbacks that Mr. Zardari and his late wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, allegedly received from Swiss companies when she was in power in the 1990s.
Pakistan was originally a civil party to the case because it was trying to reclaim the money. But it withdrew in 2008 after the Pakistani government issued an ordinance giving Mr. Zardari and other politicians immunity from prosecution in old corruption cases.
The Supreme Court declared the ordinance unconstitutional in 2009 and demanded the government write a letter to the Swiss to reopen the case, but it refused, citing the president’s immunity from prosecution while in office. The prime minister said Tuesday that the letter written by the law minister would ask the Swiss to ignore the government’s previous withdrawal from the case.
The Swiss indicated last year that they have no plans to continue with the case, at least while Mr. Zardari is in office.