ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's top court ordered the arrest of the prime minister in a corruption case Tuesday, the latest clash between the government and a judiciary that repeatedly has pressured the country's political leaders.
The ruling is sure to inflame the already antagonistic relationship between the court and the government, pushing the country toward yet another political crisis.
It also could provide ammunition to Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, a firebrand Muslim cleric who was leading tens of thousands of people in a second day of rallies in Islamabad to press for the removal of the government, which he criticized as corrupt and indifferent to the common man.
The Supreme Court order against Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf was related to a case involving private power stations set up to provide electricity to energy-starved Pakistan. The judges are investigating allegations that the bidding process was marred by corruption.
Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry ordered the arrest of 16 people involved in the case, including Mr. Ashraf, who previously served as minister for water and power, said the written court order.
An adviser to the prime minister, Fawad Chaudhry, said any attempt to arrest the prime minister would be unconstitutional since he enjoys immunity from prosecution while in office.
"We consider it a judicial coup, and it is part of a greater plan to derail democracy," Fawad Chaudhry said.
The Supreme Court clashed repeatedly with the government over the past year, especially over an old corruption case against President Asif Ali Zardari in Swiss courts.
Pakistan's top court convicted Mr. Ashraf's predecessor, Yousuf Raza Gilani, of contempt of court for refusing to reopen the case and ousted him from office.
The judges pressured Mr. Ashraf as well, and the government finally agreed to the court's demand to ask the Swiss to pursue the case — which Swiss authorities have said privately they have no intention of doing because Mr. Zardari enjoys immunity while in office.
It was unclear whether there was any connection between the Supreme Court's order and Mr. ul-Qadri's rally. But some speculated it was a scripted one-two blow by the chief justice and the cleric to strike at their opponents in the government.
Mr. ul-Qadri has seized on alleged corruption by Pakistani politicians to rally support for his protest against the government.
The cleric rocketed to national prominence after his return from Canada late last year, and his message has galvanized many Pakistanis who say the government has brought them only misery.
But critics fear that Mr. ul-Qadri and his demands for election reforms may derail the country's upcoming democratic elections, possibly at the behest of the country's powerful military — allegations denied by the cleric.
Those concerns could intensify following a fiery speech he delivered Tuesday to protesters, in which he condemned the country's politicians as corrupt thieves and lavished praise on the Supreme Court and the military, which has a history of toppling civilian governments in coups.
He said they are the only two institutions in Pakistan that "are functioning and performing their duties to fulfill the needs of the people."