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Pakistan's civilian government is in the midst of one of the many dramas that seem to occupy all its time. The prime minister appeared before the country's Supreme Court. He was ordered to explain why he should not be held in contempt. The prime minister has been refusing to prosecute a corruption case against his own boss, President Asif Ali Zardari.
On top of an insurgency, terrorism, an economic crisis, a rupture in relations with the U.S., and a civilian confrontation with the military, the civilians are contending among themselves over the rule of law. NPR's Julie McCarthy was at the court today.
JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: How did the appearance of the prime minister go?
MCCARTHY: Well, I think what you really saw happening was the executive here - the prime minister and his lawyer - getting a full blast of the judiciary. Really a lesson in the separation of powers. And that's really the larger frame of this story, Steve. And that's why the nation was glued to the court today. It's a momentous occasion for the Pakistanis to see the chief executive of the country in the dock answering to an independent newly restored Judiciary.
One of the justices called is a great day. But you do have critics here accusing this government of being utterly cynical about carrying out the court's orders, using lame excuses and endless delays, in the words of one of the senior lawyers who was there today.
And to the surprise of a lot of people, the court granted more time to the prime minister and his lawyer. They adjourned the contempt case against him until February 1. The prime minister was told he didn't have to come to that one.
INSKEEP: OK. This case has already dragged on for a few years. What did the prime minister say to explain all those delays?
MCCARTHY: Well, you know, he's a soft-spoken man. He was very differential. He sounded very humbled. Basically he said he felt he had a handicap in carrying out the orders to revive a graft case against President Asif Ali Zardari. The Swiss authorities originally brought suit - a money laundering suit against Zardari and his late wife, Benazir Bhutto.
And Gilani told the court he didn't attempt to re-open the case with the Swiss authorities because he was advised that the president has complete immunity from prosecution. Therefore he couldn't comply with the court. How could I send the president to the wolves, he asked.
INSKEEP: OK. So how did the court respond to Yousaf Raza Gilani's argument then that they could not comply with the court order because it didn't match the constitution?
MCCARTHY: Well, they gave his lawyer quite a rough going over, which is interesting because his lawyer is a hallowed figure in the judiciary movement that helped restore the Supreme Court to its new independence. But those credentials didn't really help him too much today.
The patience clearly is running out of the Supreme Court, of the justices. One said, look, we have great respect for the prime minister and he says he's only obeying the constitution, but somebody should've come to us in two years - that's how old the court order is - and kindly explained what the impediment was. And one justice subtly urged the lawyer to go ahead and contact the Swiss authorities and get on with it.
INSKEEP: And yet they gave the government more time to comply here.
MCCARTHY: That's right. Listen, they did adjourn until February 1. And I think the reason behind that, Steve, is that the court is full of cautious, serious men who, yes, they want to exercise this new independence and act aggressively as one branch of government, but they also see the political landscape in front of them. And they don't want to be blamed for inviting more instability in Pakistan - as you pointed out, it's got plenty to deal with - and invite martial law. The court actually said that there's no need for that now. They are wary. They're watching. And they're careful. And they have been accused of colluding with the army to get Zardari. But you know, those allegations are undercut by the fact the court has really signaled loudly and clearly to the military that any precipitous move by it would be considered unconstitutional. So they are moving slowly, and have, until now.
INSKEEP: Julie, thanks very much.
MCCARTHY: Thank you.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Julie McCarthy in Islamabad today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.