Pakistan's prime minister was charged with contempt by the country's highest court on Monday, pleading not guilty to charges that could see him jailed for six months and disqualified from office.
ISLAMABAD- Summoned over the government's two-year refusal to write to authorities in Switzerland asking them to re-open corruption cases against the president, Yousuf Raza Gilani is Pakistan's first premier ever to be charged in office.
A long-running standoff between the government and the judiciary has fanned political instability in the turbulent country, deeply troubled by Al-Qaeda and Taliban violence that many now expect to face early elections within months.
President Asif Ali Zardari and his late wife, former premier Benazir Bhutto, were suspected of using Swiss accounts to launder about $12 million in alleged bribes paid by companies seeking customs inspection contracts in the 1990s.
Gilani, who swept into court dressed in a dark suit, grey tie, white shirt and cufflinks, was charged within minutes of appearing. Reading out the charge sheet, Judge Nasir ul-Mulk said the prime minister had "wilfully flouted, disregarded and disobeyed" orders from the Supreme Court over re-opening alleged laundered money cases.
"Do you plead guilty?" asked Mulk. "No," Gilani replied, adding that he would respond further in writing.
The court ordered the attorney general to prosecute the case, giving him until Thursday to file documents, which the court will examine on February 22, and the defence until February 27 to file documents and a list of witnesses.
Evidence from Gilani's lawyer will then be recorded on February 28, three days before March 2 Senate elections, at which the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) is expected to win a near-majority of seats. Gilani was exempted from appearing in court until further notice.
The prime minister has always insisted that Zardari is immune from prosecution as president and says the cases are politically motivated.
In an interview with Al-Jazeera television at the weekend, he said if convicted, he would lose his seat in parliament and would automatically be removed as prime minister.
"Certainly then there is no need to step down if I am convicted, I am not supposed to be even the member of the parliament," he said.
Security was razor-tight for Monday's hearing, with hundreds of riot police guarding the Supreme Court and queues trailing back from checkpoints where police searched vehicles and helicopters hovering overhead.
In December 2009 the Pakistani court overturned a two-year political amnesty that had frozen investigations into Zardari and other politicians.
The Swiss separately shelved the cases in 2008, when Zardari became head of state, and a prosecutor in Switzerland has said it will be impossible to re-open them as long as he remains president and is immune from prosecution.
Members of the government accuse judges of overstepping their reach and of trying to bring down the prime minister and president, a year before the administration would become the first in Pakistan to complete a full elected term.
But aides dismissed speculation in the Pakistani press on Monday that Gilani would soon need to be replaced.
"Comments about a new prime minister are premature. The president has immunity," Information Minister Firdous Ashiq Awan told reporters.
Other allies criticised the indictment. "For the first time the prime minister has been charged. It's a sad day in the history of Pakistan," said Qamar Zaman Kaira, a senior member of the PPP.
The president, who is nicknamed "Mr 10 Percent" for his alleged corruption, has already spent 11 years in jail in Pakistan on charges ranging from corruption to murder although he has never been convicted.