The PM pleaded not guilty to charges that could see him jailed for six months and disqualified from office. Summoned over the government s two-year refusal to write to authorities in Switzerland asking them to re-open corruption cases against the president, Yousuf Raza Gilani is Pakistan s first premier ever to be charged in office.
A long-running standoff between the government and the judiciary has fanned political instability in the turbulent country, deeply troubled by Al-Qaeda and Taliban violence that many now expect to face early elections within months.
President Asif Ali Zardari and his late wife, former premier Benazir Bhutto, were suspected of using Swiss bank accounts to launder about $12 million in alleged bribes paid by companies seeking customs inspection contracts in Pakistan in the 1990s.
Gilani, who swept into the court dressed in a dark suit, grey tie, white shirt and cufflinks, was charged within minutes of appearing.
Judge Nasir ul-Mulk read out the indictment and asked the prime minister whether he had heard the charges.
Yes,” Gilani replied.
“Do you plead guilty?” asked Mulk.
“No,” Gilani replied.
The court then ordered the attorney general to prosecute the case, giving him until Thursday and the defence until February 27 to file documents, which will then be recorded on February 28. After that, a date will be set for trial.
The prime minister has always insisted that Zardari is immune from prosecution as president and says the cases are politically motivated.
In an interview with Al-Jazeera television at the weekend, he said if convicted, he would lose his seat in parliament and would automatically be removed as prime minister.
“Certainly then there is no need to step down if I am convicted, I am not supposed to be even the member of the parliament,” he said.
Security was razor-tight for Monday s hearing, with hundreds of riot police guarding the Supreme Court and queues trailing back from checkpoints where police searched vehicles and helicopters hovering overhead.
The Pakistani court overturned in December 2009 a two-year political amnesty that had frozen investigations into Zardari and other politicians.
The Swiss separately shelved the cases in 2008, when Zardari became head of state, and a prosecutor in Switzerland has said it will be impossible to re-open them as long as he remains president and is immune from prosecution.
Members of the government accuse judges of over-stepping their reach and of trying to bring down the prime minister and president, a year before the administration would become the first in Pakistan to complete an elected term.
“For the first time the prime minister has been charged. It s a sad day for Pakistan,” Qamar Zaman Kaira, a senior member of Zardari s Pakistan People s Party (PPP), told reporters outside the court.
The president, who is nicknamed “Mr 10 Percent” for his alleged corruption, has already spent 11 years in jail in Pakistan on charges ranging from corruption to murder although he has never been convicted.