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Pakistani chief justice turns the tables on Zardari govt

Last updated on: June 19, 2012 20:43 IST

Pakistani chief justice turns the tables on Zardari govt

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Amir Mir in Islamabad

The ruling by Pakistan Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry to disqualify Yousaf Raza Gilani as prime minister has sent the Asif Ali Zardari-led Pakistan People's Party government into a deep political crisis. Amir Mir reports from Islamabad.

Having survived an alleged government-sponsored plot to dislodge him from his office by implicating his son in a graft case, Pakistan Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry on Tuesday literally turned the tables on the Asif Ali Zardari-led Pakistan People's Party government by disqualifying Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani.

In a dramatic move, the Supreme Court declared as null and void the Speaker Fehmida Mirza's May 24 ruling [favouring Gilani] that she has absolute power to decide the matter related to disqualification or qualification of any lawmaker.

The ruling Pakistan Peoples Party has convened its parliamentary party meeting for Wednesday in the wake of Gilani's disqualification. The ruling party has also accepted the apex court's decision, but not without expressing reservations over the judgment.

As things stand, there are three front runners for the slot of the prime minister. Makhdoom Shahabuddin and Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar, both from Punjab, are being considered to replace Yusuf Raza Gilani as the next prime minister. Shahbuddin is the PPP MNA from Rahim Yar Khan and is currently the Federal Minister for Textiles.

Mukhtar was formerly the defence minister and currently holds the portfolio of .inister of water and power.

Defending her ruling on the issue of PM's conviction in the contempt of court case, the National Assembly Speaker had told the apex court that her ruling on any matter could not be challenged in the court and the power of the speaker was not parallel or under the SC.

"The powers vested in the Speaker are not parallel or equivalent to the Supreme Court hence any decision/ruling given by the Speaker is not tantamount to interference or setting aside any verdict of the apex court, especially when the ruling is the result of an independent exercise of powers vested in the speaker by the constitution without having been influenced by extraneous circumstances."

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Image: File photo of Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry is surrounded by media and well wishers as he walks toward his offices in Islamabad
Photographs: Faisal Mahmood/Reuters

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Gilani has always insisted Zardari has full immunity

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However, the apex court rejected the contention of the Speaker on Tuesday and declared that Gilani stood disqualified as prime minister of Pakistan since April 26, 2011 when he was actually convicted for contempt of court. Gilani was convicted by the court for refusing to ask Switzerland to reopen a multi-million-dollar corruption investigation into President Zardari.

The allegations against Zardari date back to the 1990s, when he and his late wife, former premier Benazir Bhutto, are suspected of using Swiss bank accounts to launder about $12 million allegedly paid in bribes by companies seeking customs inspection contracts.

The Swiss shelved the cases in 2008 when Zardari became President. Gilani has always insisted Zardari has full immunity as head of state and last month said that writing to the Swiss would be a violation of the constitution. He was briefly -- but symbolically -- held in the courtroom for his sentence, which ended as soon as the judges arose for the day after announcing the verdict.

Gilani, Pakistan's first ever sitting prime minister to be convicted, has faced down widespread calls from the opposition to quit. He has said that only Parliament can remove him from office.

Under the constitution, anyone convicted of defaming or ridiculing the judiciary is barred from being an MP. The matter of disqualification fell first to the Speaker, a member of the main ruling PPP, who on May 24 said conviction for contempt was not a charge that meant he should be disqualified under the constitution.

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Image: Pak PM Gilani waves to supporters as he arrives at the supreme court in Islamabad on April 26
Photographs: Faisal Mahmood/Reuters

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'Gilani has ceased to be the prime minister of Pakistan'

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Gilani subsequently decided not to appeal his conviction in a move interpreted as an effort not to antagonise the court into disqualifying him. But senior opposition politicians, including Imran Khan and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, challenged the ruling.

Announcing his decision, the chief justice, who refused to quit his office last week following corruption charges involving his son, said, "Gilani has become disqualified from being member of the parliament," reading the order.

"He has also ceased to be the prime minister of Pakistan with effect from the same date (April 24) and office of the prime minister shall be deemed to be vacant accordingly.

"The Election Commission of Pakistan is required to issue notification of disqualification... The President is required to take necessary steps under the constitution to ensure continuation of democratic process through parliamentary system of government in the country," he added.

A three-member bench, Justice Chaudhry, Justice Jawwad S Khawaja and Justice Khilji Arif Hussain heard a set of constitutional petitions challenging Mirza's ruling over the reference against Gilani. The bench had been hearing a set of petitions filed by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf, Azhar Chaudhry advocate and others challenging the Speaker's ruling.

Earlier during Tuesday's hearing, before the court issued its verdict, Pakistan Attorney General Irfan Qadir presented in court the National Assembly's resolution endorsing the speaker's ruling in favour of the premier.

The resolution had been moved by the government and was adopted by the NA on June 14. "We respect the courts, however, the state institutions should also try to avoid clash amongst themselves," the attorney general said.

Upon which the Chief Justice remarked that the judiciary respected the parliament and that there was no clash between the state's institutions, as being propagated by the attorney general.

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Image: A file video showing President Asif Ali Zardari and former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani


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'Parliament should overrule the apex court verdict

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Literally threatening the judges, Irfan Qadir said that if the court issued an order against the speaker's ruling, the parliament would declare it invalid. The prime minister is not answerable to the courts over the dispensation of his professional duties, the attorney general said.

The attorney general said that the court had violated Article 248 of the Constitution and that he feared that the court may issue "another ruling which could be against the law".

Qadir reiterated that the verdict of the seven judge bench in the contempt of court case against Gilani was unconstitutional. There is no law in the country which addresses the issue of contempt of court, said the attorney general.

Following the court verdict, President Zardari held emergency talks among top PPP leaders. Television footage showed Zardari, Gilani and Zardari's son, party co-chairman, Bilawal, gathered in the heavily guarded presidency in the capital Islamabad. Officials were tight-lipped on how the President would respond to the SC's announcement.

The President also summoned heads of coalition parties to the presidency for further talks at 8 pm, the official added.

As a matter of fact, the PPP leadership has been deliberating on its response to a possible hostile ruling by the Supreme Court which is finally out.

Since the Supreme Court has simply directed the Election Commission to de-notify Gilani as the prime minister as well as a member of the National Assembly, the government seems to have no other option but to go for Gilani's replacement.

However, there are those in the government circles who suggest that the parliament should overrule the apex court verdict and summon the chief justice for committing contempt of the parliament by striking down the decision of the Speaker.


Image: A policeman walks past the supreme court in Islamabad
Photographs: Faisal Mahmood/Reuters

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