ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's Supreme Court warned on Tuesday it could dismiss the prime minister if he doesn't initiate corruption proceedings against the president, turning the screw further on a weak government already under pressure from the powerful army.
The conflict has been brewing since 2009, when judges struck down an amnesty protecting President Asif Ali Zardari and hundreds of other politicians from prosecution on graft and other charges and ordered cases against them reopened. The government has resisted doing this, arguing that the president has immunity from prosecution.
The political uncertainty comes as the country is struggling with urgent economic and security challenges.
Earlier Tuesday, at least 26 people were killed when suspected Islamist militants detonated a bomb in a market in the northwest close to the Afghan border, the deadliest such attack in the country for several months.
Some independent commentators say the Supreme Court, which in the past has frequently been dragged into political disputes and on three occasions sanctioned military coups, is hostile to the current administration and is working with the army to oust it by "constitutional means."
A five-judge panel accused the government of "willful disobedience" and said "the buck stops" at the office of Prime Minister Yousuf Reza Gilani, who it said was "dishonest." The ruling warned that the court could declare him unfit to hold office and dismiss him if he does not implement its earlier verdicts.
It ordered the attorney general to appear before the court next week to explain the government's foot dragging.
Government lawmaker Babar Awan dismissed the ruling.
"Only the people of Pakistan have the right to decide who is popular and who is unpopular in the country, and who is honest and who is dishonest," he said soon after it was announced.
Zardari is a major beneficiary of the graft amnesty, which was part of a broader U.S.-backed deal to allow his wife and her political allies to return to Pakistan in 2007 and take part in elections safe from prosecution on charges they have long maintained were politically motivated.
The Supreme Court has zeroed in on one case that had been taken up by the Swiss government against Zardari that was halted in 2008 under the amnesty. Zardari and Bhutto were found guilty in absentia in a Geneva court in 2003 of laundering millions of Swiss francs. They were handed six-month sentences and fined, but both punishments were automatically suspended when they appealed.
The court has ordered the government to contact Swiss authorities to reopen the case.
Swiss prosecutors have told reporters that this was impossible because Zardari has immunity.
Zardari is also exposed to another scandal rocking the country's political, legal and media elite surrounding a memo sent to the Washington last year seeking its help in reigning in the army. The Supreme Court is investigating that note, which some have dubbed "treasonous."
The bomb in the northwest hit vehicles being used by an anti-Taliban militia in the Khyber region, said local security officer Khan Dad Khan. It also wounded 24 people, said local government official Iqbal Khan.
The army has supported the formation of anti-Taliban militias in northwest Pakistan, but the insurgents have ruthlessly attacked the groups over the last two years. Many of the country's bloodiest bombings have been against militia members or their families.
Shopkeeper Sharif Gul said the blast ignited a huge fire.
"People were burning," he said at a hospital in Peshawar, the main town in the northwest. "There was nothing to put out the fire."
Islamist militants with links to al-Qaida have carried out hundreds of bombings in Pakistan since 2007, killing many hundreds of soldiers, police, government officials and civilians.
The Pakistani army has carried out offensives against the militants in their strongholds in tribally administered regions like Khyber, but the insurgents have proven to be a resilient foe. There have been conflicting reports of peace talks between some insurgent factions and the government in recent months.
While the frequency of large-scale attacks outside of the northwest has decreased over the last 18 months, the violence has triggered fears in the West that nuclear-armed Pakistan may be buckling under extremism.
The last major bombing was in September close to the Swat Valley, when a suicide bomber hit a funeral of a tribal elder opposed to the Taliban, killing 31 people.