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Pakistan: Supreme Court Initiates Proceedings Against Prime Minister

(Jan. 25, 2012) On January 16, 2012, the Supreme Court of Pakistan issued a contempt notice to the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani, requiring him to appear before the Court on January 19, 2012. The Notice was issued in response to the failure of the current government to implement the Court's ruling on the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO). On December 16, 2009, the Supreme Court declared the Musharraf-era amnesty law to be unconstitutional, effectively re-instating graft cases against high profile politicians, including current President Asif Ali Zardari, who were beneficiaries of the disputed law. In particular, the contempt order was issued due to the refusal of the current government to draft a letter to Swiss authorities to reopen a graft investigation against Zardari. (SC Slaps Gilani with Contempt, DAWN.COM (Jan. 17, 2012), The government, on the other hand, believes that the President enjoys immunity from prosecution pursuant to article 248 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. (Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, art. 248, available at National Assembly of Pakistan website (last visited Jan. 23, 2012).)

On January 19, 2012, Gilani, as requested, appeared before the seven-judge Supreme Court bench. In a ten-minute address, he defended his government's position, stating that it had failed to send a letter to Swiss authorities requesting the reopening of graft cases because the President enjoys “complete immunity inside and outside the country.” The Court subsequently adjourned the hearing until February 1, 2012, granting the government's request for “more time to seek relevant documents in the case.” (Faisal Shakeel, Gilani Contempt Hearing: 'Did Not Write Letter Because President HasImmunity,' THE EXPRESS TRIBUNE (Jan. 19, 2012).)

The Supreme Court issued the order pursuant to section 17 of the Contempt of Court Ordinance, 2003, in conjunction with article 204 of the Constitution (Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, art. 204, supra.) The Court had issued a show cause notice requiring the Prime Minister to personally appear before it. The accused in such cases is given an opportunity to explain why contempt proceedings should not be brought against him.

If the Court is satisfied that in the “interest of justice” charges should be brought, then it must fix a date to frame charges against the accused. Under the Ordinance, the contemnor has the right to appeal, known as an intra-court appeal, where “orders passed by a superior court in cases of contempt” are appealable to a larger bench of the Supreme Court. A person convicted of contempt by a court is punishable with “imprisonment which may extend to six months” or with a fine of up to 100,000 rupees (about US$1,100). (The Contempt of Court Ordinance, No. 4 of 2003, THE GAZETTE OF PAKISTAN EXTRAORDINARY (July 10, 2003), available at Sindh Judicial Academy website.)

According to legal experts quoted in news reports, the Prime Minister can continue to fulfill his duties, pending the conclusion of contempt proceedings. (SC Slaps Gilani with Contempt, supra.)