ISLAMABAD - Pakistan's Supreme Court on Friday struck down a recently passed law to protect the prime minister from being charged with contempt of court and ousted from office, like his predecessor, for refusing to reopen an old corruption case against the president.
The ruling comes less than a week before the deadline set by the court for the current premier, Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, to tell the judges whether he will obey their order to write a letter to Swiss authorities asking them to reopen the graft case.
The government and court have been locked in conflict over the issue since the beginning of the year, stoking political instability that has distracted from what many in the country see as more pressing problems, such as the struggling economy and a Taliban insurgency.
The court could repeatedly disqualify prime ministers over the issue, undermining the government and forcing an early national.
Parliament passed the new law in early July after former Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was convicted of contempt and forced to step down. The law provided greater protection to the prime minister and other senior government officials against contempt charges.
The court struck down the law because it violated the basic principle of equality among the country's citizens, said Zafr Ullah, a lawyer who challenged the law.
The government has refused to reopen the corruption case against Zardari, saying he enjoys immunity from prosecution while in office. His supporters have accused the court of relentlessly pursuing the matter because of bad blood between Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and the president.
The new prime minister, Ashraf, has also indicated he has no plans to write the letter to Swiss authorities. If the court convicts him of contempt and orders his removal from office, the government would be forced to once again seek support in parliament to elect a new premier or call early national elections.
It's unclear which option the government would choose. The ruling Pakistan People's Party has been keen on holding elections as scheduled in early 2013 because it could then boast being the first civilian government to serve a full five-year term in the country's 65-year history. Past governments have been toppled by the direct or indirect intervention of the army, often with the help if the judiciary.
The case against Zardari relates to kickbacks he and his late wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, allegedly received from Swiss companies when Bhutto was in power in the 1990s. They were found guilty in absentia in a Swiss court in 2003.
Zardari appealed, but Swiss prosecutors dropped the case after the Pakistani parliament passed an ordinance giving the president and others immunity from old corruption cases that many agreed were politically motivated.
The measure was criticized by many in Pakistan, who saw it as an attempt to subvert the law. The Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in 2009 and ordered the government to write to Swiss authorities requesting they reopen the case.
A Swiss prosecutor told the media last year that Geneva couldn't bring proceedings against Zardari because he has immunity as a head of state.
The Supreme Court has also said it would respect the president's immunity, but it still wants the government to write the letter to the Swiss and is frustrated the government has long disobeyed its orders to do so.
The court has ordered the government to declare whether it will write the letter by Aug. 8.