NEW: Pakistan's prime minister says that he will appear in court Thursday
NEW: He pushes back, saying the "army and the judiciary (must) protect democracy"
Yousuf Raza Gilani could be disqualified as prime minister if he is convicted
Judges accuse Gilani of failing to pursue corruption cases
Pakistan’s Supreme Court has ordered Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to face a contempt of court hearing this week, officials said, setting up a potential showdown between the nation’s judicial and political leaders.
The Pakistani leader responded Monday night by saying he has “always respected the courts, and I will present before the court.” At the same time, he pushed back against the military and the judiciary branch in the name of “democracy.”
“The army and the judiciary, they both have to protect democracy in Pakistan,” Gilani said in a televised speech Monday night. “They can’t remove democracy. They can’t pack up the system.”
The notice was issued for the government’s failure to reopen thousands of corruption cases against politicians and bureaucrats, including President Asif Ali Zardari.
“Ultimately it’s the prime minister who is responsible for carrying out the court’s order and he has not. I think the court has lost its patience,” said Ahmad Bilal Mehboob, the head of the Islamabad-based political think tank the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency.
The court has not found Gilani in contempt or convicted him of a crime. But if he is convicted, the court could disqualify Gilani as a member of Parliament, which would make him ineligible to be prime minister, Mehboob said.
The court ordered Gilani to appear in person before the court Thursday, where he will have an opportunity to defend himself.
Even before Gilani’s speech, Pakistan’s government said the prime minister would comply with the order.
“The history of our party is filled with sacrifices, and we are ready for it again. We have accepted all of the court’s decisions,” Information Minister Firdous Ashiq Awan said.
It will likely “take a while” before the court rules, Mehboob said.
News of the notice of contempt came hours before Pakistani lawmakers voted Monday on a resolution supporting the country’s democratic system after weeks of public speculation and political intrigue about the possibility of a coup in the volatile nation.
That resolution supporting “the democratic system” and parliament was passed, Gilani said in his speech Monday night.
At the same time, a panel appointed by the Supreme Court is holding a hearing on a scandal over an anonymous memo that has severely strained relations between military and civilian authorities.
The controversial, unsigned memo was allegedly drafted by the civilian leadership and asked the United States to help rein in the military.
The so-called “memogate” scandal has unleashed waves of political intrigue in recent weeks. Local media have described a government on a collision course with its own army.
Last month, Gilani spoke provocatively of plots to topple the government. Later, he accepted an army statement pledging support for the democratic process.
Last week, tensions spiked after he fired his defense secretary. The move came after Pakistan’s military issued a statement warning of “grievous consequences” after a Gilani interview in The People’s Daily Online of China. In it, the military said, Gilani accused the army’s chief of staff and the head of the Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency of violating the constitution.
Leaders appeared to be making an effort to ease tensions over the weekend, with several high-profile meetings between civilian and military officials.
Government officials and members of Gilani’s Pakistan Peoples Party defended the prime minister Monday.
“The prime minister is not in jeopardy,” said Seyed Abid Ali Shah, a lawmaker representing the Pakistan Peoples Party.
Federal Law Minister Maula Bakhsh Chandio told reporters in Islamabad that Gilani would remain in his post.
“All the conspiracies against the government will fail and all the analysis will prove incorrect,” he said.