Islamabad: Pakistan’s Supreme Court turned up the pressure on the civilian government on Tuesday by warning the prime minister he could be removed from office if he doesn’t take action on longstanding corruption cases against the president.
The government, already feeling the heat from the military over what has become known as the “memogate” scandal, says President Asif Ali Zardari has immunity as head of state and has relied on that argument to fend off previous court orders.
Tuesday’s order is the latest twist in a controversy dating back to 2007, when then-military President Pervez Musharraf agreed to an amnesty for thousands accused of corruption, murder and terrorism.
The 2007 amnesty, known as the National Reconciliation Ordinance, was widely seen as the basis for a power-sharing deal between Musharraf and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, assassinated in December 2007 after returning from self-imposed exile.
The Supreme Court threw out the amnesty in December 2009 on the grounds it was unconstitutional and called for the re-opening of corruption cases, with Zardari, Bhutto’s widower, the biggest target.
Zardari’s government, run by Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, has dragged its feet since then, prompting Tuesday’s ruling.
“It is quite clear to us now that the federal government and the National Accountability Bureau are not serious in the matter at all and those concerned are only interested in delaying and prolonging the matter on one pretext or another,” the five-judge Supreme Court bench wrote in its order.
There is no immediate threat to the government, however. The court recessed until Jan 16, when it will reconvene to hear arguments from the attorney-general.
Tension meanwhile runs high between the civilian administration and Pakistan’s powerful generals over “memogate”.
Last October, businessman Mansoor Ijaz, writing in a column in the Financial Times, said a senior Pakistani diplomat had asked that a memo be sent to the U.S. Defense Department for help in reining in the military.
Ijaz later identified the diplomat as Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States and an ally of Zardari. Haqqani denies involvement.
The Supreme Court ordered a judicial commission to investigate the scandal, which could lead to treason charges against Haqqani. If Zardari is also found to be linked to the memo, it could lead to his impeachment.
The government also faces challenges on the diplomatic front. Ties with the United States hit a low following a Nov 26 cross-border air strike by NATO that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
Mistrust has grown since a unilateral U.S. Special Forces raid in May that killed Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil, infuriating the military, government and many Pakistanis.