(Islamabad, PAK) - Pakistan's top court on Monday found beleagured Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani in contempt for failing to re-open corruption cases, exacerbating a crisis likely to force early elections.
The Supreme Court summoned Gilani to appear on Thursday, escalating pressure on a weakened government at a time of crippling tensions with the army which some analysts believe could cost Gilani his job.
"The Supreme Court has issued a contempt of court notice to the prime minister for not complying with its orders," Judge Nasir-ul-Mulk told the court which met to debate how to proceed on graft charges against the president.
"He has been directed to appear personally on January 19."
The Supreme Court wants the government to write to Swiss authorities demanding that they re-open corruption cases against President Asif Ali Zardari after a previous amnesty expired in late 2009.
Zardari and his Pakistan People's Party (PPP) leadership have refused to do so, saying the president is immune from prosecution as head of state.
"We will consult legal experts and take steps which they consider necessary under law," Maula Bakhsh Chandio, minister for law and parliamentary affairs, told reporters after the court order.
In the past, PPP stalwarts have accused the judiciary of over-stepping its reach and colluding with the army to bring down the administration before its five-year mandate ends in 2013.
Last year, a Swiss prosecutor said that it would be "impossible" to reopen a case against Zardari since he benefits from immunity as a head of state.
Supreme Court judges have outlined six options on how to proceed on graft charges against Zardari -- which include finding Gilani in contempt, disqualifying the prime minister and president, and holding early elections.
Mulk said he had been left with "no option" but to issue a show cause notice to Gilani after the government ignored the court's demands.
A senior PPP leader and spokesman, Qamar Zaman Kaira told AFP that Gilani would appear in court.
"Inshallah (God willing), he will," Kaira said when asked if the prime minister would attend Thursday's hearing.
It marks only the second time that contempt of court procedures have been initiated against a sitting prime minister in Pakistan.
In November 1997, prime minister Nawaz Sharif was also found in contempt in a case which ultimately led to the resignation of president Farooq Leghari.
But analysts are divided on whether Gilani could be convicted, pushed out to protect Zardari or show flexibility in order to avert a wider crisis.
"There is possibility now that the prime minister will be made a scapegoat and he may resign," senior lawyer Quosen Mufti told AFP.
"Another possibility is that the prime minister will appear before the court... If he gives the court a commitment on implementation the court can discharge the contempt notice. If not then he may be convicted," Mutfi added.
The prime minister is likely to seek solace in a confidence vote in the civilian leadership in the lower house of parliament on Monday.
Zardari is also under pressure over a memo soliciting American help to prevent a coup apparently feared in the aftermath of Osama bin Laden's killing in Pakistan on May 2 and to clip the power of the army.
Zardari's close aide, Husain Haqqani, has been forced to resign as ambassador to Washington and the Supreme Court on December 30 ordered a judicial inquiry into a memo following a demand from the chief spymaster.
The army has carried out three coups in Pakistan, but analysts believe it has no appetite for another direct takeover, instead preferring to force early elections behind the scenes in concert with pressure from the courts.
The attorney general said Monday he had been unable to obtain crucial evidence -- Blackberry message data sent between Haqqani and US businessman Mansoor Ijaz, who claims to have acted as a go-between on the memo.
He said Blackberry's makers refused to release such records without the customer's permission.
His lawyer, Akram Sheikh, said Ijaz feared for his life but would apply for a visa in Switzerland, indicating that he could testify by January 25.
The commission adjourned the hearing until January 24.