ISLAMABAD Pakistan's Supreme Court on Monday ordered Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani to appear before it for failing to pursue corruption cases against the president and other officials, a sharp escalation in the government's battle for survival.
The court threatened the premier with contempt, the latest blow for the civilian administration which also faces pressure from the military over a mysterious memo seeking U.S. help to avert an alleged coup last year.
Gilani said he respected the court and would appear as requested on Thursday.
President Asif Ali Zardari's ruling party had been lobbying coalition partners since Friday to vote in favour of a resolution in parliament supporting the government. On Monday, parliament passed the resolution.
Details of the final text were not immediately available but sections of it carried on state radio suggested the government was trying to avoid an escalation in tensions with the military and the Supreme Court.
The resolution backed the government's efforts to "strengthen democracy", but stopped short of criticising the military, which has ruled the country for over half its 64-year history through a series of coups or from behind the scenes.
"We're not against any institution. And we have always respected the courts," Gilani told parliament in a speech televised live on Pakistani news channels.
"The court has summoned me. And respecting the court, I will go there on the 19th and appear in court."
While Gilani is the one facing a contempt hearing, most observers say the court's real target is Zardari.
During the 1990s, Zardari had multiple cases of corruption and even murder lodged against him, all of which he says are false and politically motivated.
An amnesty deal that protected him from prosecution was nullified in 2009 and the court has been pushing for the government to re-open and investigate the corruption cases against Zardari.
The government refuses to do so, saying Zardari enjoys immunity as the head of state.
"We are left with no option, as a first step, to issue a show cause notice," the seven-member bench of the Supreme Court said in its notice on Monday. "The prime minister should appear personally in court on January 19."
While Gilani is not considered to be in immediate danger and the case is expected to be drawn out, he could have to step down eventually if he were to be held in contempt of court.
Gilani won a unanimous vote of confidence in parliament when he became prime minister nearly four years ago, and has been known as a peacemaker even among the ruling Pakistan People's Party's most bitter enemies. Unlike Zardari, he was seen as having smooth ties with the military before the latest turmoil.
Concern over Pakistan's protracted political crisis has grown around the world, given the country of 180 million people faces a rampaging Taliban insurgency and has one of the fastest growing nuclear arsenals.
"We respect the court and its verdict," said Farhatullah Babar, the presidential spokesman. "An appropriate response will be formulated in light of consultation with our legal brains."
Gilani would likely appear before the court on Thursday and then the attorney general would request that he not appear regularly, which the court would likely agree to, former law minister Khalid Anwar said.
Any contempt charges would be strongly fought by the government, dragging proceedings out, he said.
"It's a lengthy process," he said. But, he added, "if he is convicted, he would be disqualified from being a member of the parliament," meaning he would no longer be eligible to be prime minister.
The government is separately embroiled in a dispute with the military over an unsigned memo sent in the wake of the U.S. commando raid that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani town last year.
The memo, which an American businessman said was drafted on the direction of former ambassador to Washington Husain Haqqani, asked for U.S. help in reining in the army, which the memo said was planning a coup.
The army was furious over the memo. Haqqani was forced to resign, and "memogate" has locked Zardari and the military in trench warfare ever since.
"The government has embarked on a confrontational path," said security analyst Imtiaz Gul. "They are confronting the judiciary and if they stick to this path, then obviously this is full of risks for the government, including the disqualification of the prime minister."
Some political experts think the government, which is deeply unpopular and facing elections this year or early next year, may actually be hoping to be ousted by the courts or the military in a bid to garner sympathy votes.
"It looks like the prime minister has decided that he is the one who is going to embrace 'political martyrdom' and try to save the president and the government," said a lawmaker from a party allied to the ruling Pakistan People's Party.
Gilani is not the first sitting prime minister to appear before the court. Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was also issued a contempt of court notice by then-chief justice, Sajjad Ali Shah, and he appeared before the court.
(Additional reporting by Serena Chaudhry; Writing by Chris Allbritton; Editing by Peter Graff)