In a major development, Pakistan's Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf has agreed to re-open draft cases against President Asif Ali Zardari. The ruling Pakistan People's Party denies that this is a setback for Mr Zardari, saying the PM has done this in consultation with him.
Mr Ashraf, who appeared in the Supreme Court today to face contempt charges for refusing to revive the cases against President Zardari, reportedly told the court that he had instructed that a former Attorney General's letter asking for closure of the corruption cases be revoked. He also sought some time to draft a letter to the law ministry sanctioning the reopening of the cases. The court has given him two to three days to do this. It has posted the next hearing on the matter for September 25 and said it wants it resolved by October 2. For more than two years, the Pakistan government has been locked in pitched battle with the country's judiciary, resisting judges' demands to reopen investigations against Mr Zardari. The government had so far argued that he enjoys immunity as head of state.
Elections are around the corner and have influenced this decision. Mr Ashraf, who took over as Pakistan's PM only in June this year, said as much: "I want to be remembered with a good name. I hope the issue is resolved; elections are not that far and we should act wisely." The ruling Pakistan's People's Party has said Mr Ahsraf has the President's approval to do this.
Former Interior Minister Rehman Malik said today's development must be seen as a positive one, one that would end all talk about the stand-off between the government and the judicary. "There was a tension that existed between the government of Pakistan and Supreme Court has ended today," Mr Malik said.
Today, Mr Ashraf was driven to the main entrance of the court in a SUV at around 9 am. Wearing a grey bandh gala suit, he emerged from the vehicle and waved at his supporters standing outside the building before going inside. Inside courtroom no 4, Mr Ashraf sat flanked by several federal ministers and leaders of parties in the ruling coalition led by the Pakistan People's Party (PPP). In court he sought that he should now be exempted from court appearances.
At the last hearing on August 27, Mr Ashraf had pleaded for more time to address the issue of reopening the cases against Mr Zardari and the five-judge bench headed by Justice Asif Saeed Khosa has given him three weeks.
Mr Ashraf is the second Prime Minister to face the Supreme Court in this case. In June, the court had disqualified his predecessor, Yousuf Raza Gilani, after convicting him of contempt for not acting on repeated orders to revive the corruption cases against Mr Zardari.
The court had ordered the Prime Minister to comply with an order to write to authorities in Switzerland asking them to reopen multimillion dollar corruption probes into the president. Mr Gilani was thrown out of office for refusing to write to the Swiss.
The allegations against Mr Zardari date back to the 1990s, when he and his late wife, former premier Benazir Bhutto, are suspected of laundering $12 million allegedly paid in bribes by companies seeking customs inspection contracts.
In 2009, the court overturned a political amnesty that froze investigations into the president and other politicians, ordering that the cases be reopened.
Mr Ashraf is the second premier to appear in court to face a contempt charge for refusing to revive the cases against Mr Zardari in Switzerland.