Test of nerves as PM appears in SC today
By Khawar Ghumman and Nasir Iqbal
ISLAMABAD: Thursday will be a momentous day in the country’s inglorious political history when Yousuf Raza Gilani is set to become the third elected prime minister to appear in court on contempt charges.
However, Wednesday evening brought some balm for a distraught nation as signs began to emerge that the government was in no mood for a head-on collision with the judiciary.
All eyes will be on the Constitution Avenue when Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani appears before the seven-member Supreme Court bench at 9.30am to file a reply to the contempt notice which the court had served on him for not implementing its Dec 2009 judgment on the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO).
Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan, the prime minister’s counsel in the contempt case, said in an interview with a private television that going by Article 248 of the Constitution (immunity for a sitting head of state), Mr Gilani had not committed contempt of court.
“As a lawyer of the prime minister, I will try to convince the court that under given circumstances my client has not committed contempt of court,” said Barrister Ahsan in reply to a question.
Expecting a positive outcome of the hearing, President Asif Zardari has arranged a dinner for his party’s lawmakers expected to flock to the capital in order to express solidarity with their beleaguered prime minister. Presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar confirmed that a dinner had been arranged for the party’s legislators.
When Barrister Ahsan was asked to explain the scenario in case the apex court held the prime minister in contempt, he said Mr Gilani would remain in office even if he were sent to jail.
“The Constitution provides two ways to remove a sitting prime minister; one, if he decides to resign, and second, he is voted out from the house. And if the Supreme Court disqualifies him, Article 63 of the Constitution will come into play. The law deals with disqualification as member of parliament,” said Mr Ahsan.
Under Article 63 (2) (3), if a question arises whether a member of parliament stands disqualified for membership, the National Assembly speaker shall refer the matter to the Election Commission within 30 days. The commission shall decide the question within 90 days of its receipt.
In reply to a question about the likelihood of fireworks on Thursday, a former Supreme Court judge, Justice Wajihuddin Ahmed, said he believed that the government had redefined its attitude.
But in reply to a question as to why the government had not written a letter to Swiss authorities for reopening of the money laundering cases against President Asif Zardari, Justice Wajihuddin said the government would invoke Article 248 of the Constitution to claim immunity for President Asif Ali Zardari.
It is likely that the Supreme Court won’t allow further hearings on immunity and instead, set a date for a ruling, the former judge said.
He recalled that the same protection under the same article was sought in 1976 in the Zulfikar Ali Bhutto contempt case. The Supreme Court had adjudged then that Article 204 of the Constitution was independent of Article 248 (immunity for the head of state).
Meanwhile, the President of the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA), Yasin Azad, told reporters that the lawyers community looked forward to welcoming the prime minister on Thursday. Mr Azad said all orders of the Supreme Court must be obeyed, but at the same time confrontation between institutions should be avoided at all cost .
REMEMBERING 1997: Lawyers, journalists and court officials reminisced about the events of 1997 when then prime minister Nawaz Sharif faced a contempt notice. The case climaxed in the infamous storming of the Supreme Court on Nov 28 that year.
With that disgraceful episode in mind, officials of the Supreme Court have taken a number of steps to beef up security for Thursday’s proceedings.
But a flood of requests for permission to attend the hearing has overwhelmed them.
Surveillance cameras have been installed in court rooms as well as at public entry gates and in reception areas. Due to limited seating capacity in room No 4, entry will be regulated through passes. The gallery has been reserved for media.
According to sources in the People’s Party, all cabinet members will accompany the prime minister to the court. A federal minister said although the party had not invited heads of coalition partners to be with the prime minister, there were reports all of them had applied for passes to enter the court’s premises. “If they give company to the prime minister, they will be more than welcome,” the minister said.
According to him, leaders of the party’s provincial chapters had left for Islamabad in order to be with Prime Minister Gilani. However, the minister added: “Our leadership has warned us against any mischief on the occasion”.