The Pakistan Supreme Court on Tuesday issued an order seeking the arrest of Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf in connection to a graft case.
The SC has directed the authorities to arrest Ashraf and present him before the court on Wednesday. The bench ordered the arrest of 16 people, including the premier, and directed the authorities to present the PM in court on Wednesday.
Incidentally, cleric Tahirul Qadri staged a sit-in demonstration in front of the parliament in Islamabad on Tuesday. Thousands of people, who joined Qadri's protests, demanded the dissolution of the national and provincial assemblies.
Ashraf, 62, who became the prime minister after the exit of Yusuf Raza Gilani in June last year, has been accused of receiving kickbacks and commission in the Rental Power
Projects case when he was the federal minister for water and power.
Gilani had to quit in the midst of a raging battle with the Supreme Court over his refusal to write to Swiss authorities to reopen graft cases against President Asif Ali Zardari there. After Ashraf assumed power, the government wrote to Swiss authorities.
The political fallout of the Supreme Court's order against Ashraf is not yet clear as this is probably the first case of an incumbent prime minister being ordered to be arrested in a corruption case. It remains to be seen whether the ruling PPP will elect a new leader to replace Ashraf.
In March last year, the Supreme Court had declared all contracts signed by the government for 'rental power plants' as illegal and directed authorities to take legal action against those responsible for clearing the projects, including Ashraf.
The National Accountability Bureau, the country's main anti-corruption agency, had so far refused to act on the court's directive.
During Tuesday's hearing, the bench issued a notice for contempt of court to NAB chief Fasih Bukhari.
Legal experts pointed out that the apex court had ordered the arrest of Ashraf even though he had not been convicted for corruption. This immediately sparked speculation that the judiciary's action was in some way linked to Qadri's efforts to remove the government.
Thousands of Qadri's supporters, who gathered at a square near the parliament house, erupted in cheers as the cleric announced that the apex court had ordered the arrest of Ashraf. Participants of his 'long march' chanted 'Long Live Supreme Court' when Qadri informed them of the court's order.
Qadri had referred to the president and the prime minister as the 'ex-president and ex-prime minister' during his speech, triggering speculation that he was in league with elements working to remove the government.
Ashraf was the minister of power when contracts were signed for several rental power projects, which were part of the Pakistan People's Party-led government's strategy to overcome a crippling energy shortage.
Though he was dropped during a cabinet reshuffle in 2011, Ashraf remained close to President Zardari.
The apex court began investigating the rental power plants in 2009 following a complaint of corruption from Pakistan Muslim League - Qaid parliamentarian Makhdoom Faisal Saleh Hayat.
The court had directed the NAB to take action against all government functionaries involved in clearing the power projects, including ministers who held the power portfolio since 2006 and officials of state-run power utilities who derived financial benefits from the contracts.
Ashraf is popularly known as 'Raja Rental' due to his involvement in graft cases in rental power projects.
Last Friday, the SC had sought a clarification from the National Accountability Bureau over its failure to arrest those who transferred Asghar Khan, the investigation officer who was probing the Rental Power case.
An SC bench, headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, had ordered the NAB to present a comprehensive report after determining who was responsible for the transfer of the officer.
The bench had remarked that the NAB, Pakistan's premier anti-corruption body, was supposed to end corruption, not to promote it.
In March last year, the apex court had directed the NAB to prosecute ministers who had held the power and water portfolios from 2006, in the Pakistan People's Party regime.
Ashraf had served as the minister for power and water from March 2008 till February 2011.
As a result, on April 20, the NAB had issued arrest warrants for 33 people, including Ashraf.
With additional inputs from PTI