Pakistan's Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani (center) waves to supporters upon arrival at the Supreme Court for a hearing in a contempt-of-court of notice, in Islamabad, Pakistan, Jan. 19.
ISLAMABAD - Pakistan's Supreme Court decided Thursday to charge the country's prime minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani, with contempt for his failure to reopen an old corruption case against the president, a move that could oust the premier from office and land him in prison if he is convicted.
That could create political turmoil within Pakistan, the last thing the government needs as it struggles to deal with an ailing economy, a violent Islamist insurgency and troubled relations with its most important ally, the United States.
The U.S. is likely watching the case closely since it wants Pakistan to focus on pushing the Taliban to make peace with the Afghan government so that Washington can withdraw its troops without a civil war breaking out in the country.
The Supreme Court ordered the government two years ago to write to Swiss authorities requesting they reopen the graft case against President Asif Ali Zardari, which dates to the late 1990s. But the government refused, claiming the president enjoys immunity from prosecution while in office.
"After the preliminary hearing, we are satisfied ... there is enough (of a) case" to proceed further, the seven-member bench ordered Thursday. "The case is adjourned until Feb. 13 for the framing of charges. The prime minister will be present in person."
Gilani, speaking in Davos, Switzerland last week, had suggested a three-month period of high political tension in the country, including a standoff with the military over a mysterious memo, had eased considerably.
But Thursday's order and Gilani's anticipated appeal are expected to ensure a continued achingly slow-motion duel between the Supreme Court and the government, which has squared off with the judiciary almost since Zardari took office in 2008.
"He has the constitutional, legal right to appeal," his lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan said. "It would be my recommendation to my client to appeal. He will then decide."
If convicted, Gilani could face jail and lose his office.
The legal tussle stems from thousands of old corruption cases thrown out in 2007 by a controversial amnesty law passed under former military president Pervez Musharraf.
Zardari is its most prominent beneficiary and the main target of the court, which voided the law in 2009 and ordered the re-opening of cases accusing the president of money laundering using Swiss bank accounts. He remains the chairman of the Pakistan People's Party, which leads the coalition government.
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Zardari's is the longest-running civilian administration in Pakistan's coup-marred history, but has become deeply unpopular, seen as both corrupt and incompetent.
Political instability and brinkmanship has consumed the nuclear-armed country in recent years, preventing it from addressing crushing poverty and other economic ills, or containing a rampaging insurgency that is endangering the U.S.-led war effort in Afghanistan.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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