Irfan Ghauri & Zia Khan
ISLAMABAD: The Attorney General of Pakistan has submitted an application on the government’s directives to adjourn the hearing of the National Reconciliation Ordinance’s (NRO) implementation.
For all its sabre-rattling and show of defiance, the government has agreed in principle to remove other beneficiaries of the NRO from key official slots.
The Supreme Court was to resume its hearing on the NRO verdict today (Monday).
According to sources, the petition asks for a postponement citing the Prime Minister’s national and international commitments as well as the ongoing flood crisis.
In the hearing, the Attorney General was also required to present a summary approved by the Prime Minister for writing a letter to the Swiss Government for re-opening the case.
The court had directed him to submit the contents of the summary to the bench at today’s hearing.
A nervy but defiant government threw down the gauntlet on Sunday with Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani questioning the Supreme Court’s powers to amend the constitution ahead of a crucial hearing into cases involving dropped graft charges in Switzerland against President Asif Ali Zardari.
The court will resume hearing on Monday of the case regarding the government’s non-implementation of its verdict on scrapping the ‘controversial’ National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), a political-cum-legal deal between former president Pervez Musharraf and slain ex-premier Benazir Bhutto.
A separate bench will also hear several petitions clubbed together against some clauses of the 18th constitutional amendment that the parliament approved early this year including one envisaging the parliamentary scrutiny of judges’ appointments in the higher judiciary.
“The Supreme Court does not have the right to amend the constitution… extra-constitutional steps will not be tolerated,” Gilani told a group of television anchors and senior columnists. The premier also ruled out the possibility of reopening the Swiss cases against the president. Analysts see his remarks as a red flag for a ‘lethal’ confrontation between the executive and the judiciary.
Yet, at the same time, Gilani voiced hope that the court would not issue any order that would destabilise the country politically. “The economic stability of Pakistan depends upon smooth functioning of political institutions,” the premier told reporters during a surprise visit to one of Islamabad’s weekly bazaar.
This indicates that the government is ready to confront the increasingly-assertive apex court should it press the authorities to write a letter to Swiss attorneys for reopening graft cases against President Zardari.
In such an event it will submit a summary in the court, arguing that Zardari, by virtue of being the head of state, enjoyed immunity under the still-uninterrupted Article 248 of the constitution.
Gilani told the Senate last Friday that since parliament was an integral part of the constitution it alone could revoke the president’s immunity from prosecution. “Half of his term is over … and if somebody wants to drag him to court, (they) should wait for another two and a half years,” the premier had said.
But, according to officials close to the rapidly unfolding political developments, Gilani’s government has decided in principle to remove from key official slots the other beneficiaries of the NRO, including some close associates of the president.
It is unclear whether some federal ministers against whom the cases were dropped under the October 2007 ordinance would also be asked to step down.
In Friday’s speech to the upper house, Gilani called upon the top bureaucrats, who had benefited from the NRO and were still holding official posts, to quit themselves. However, he did not say a word about the federal ministers who had extracted similar benefits from the NRO.
Key players and change
In an interaction with senior anchors, Gilani, however, sought to ease speculation that the government might be collapsing. “Those who wish to send the government packing through unconstitutional ways will be disappointed,” he said.
The premier said he met Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry a couple of days ago and would be having another session with him soon. He, however, refused to share with media what transpired between him and Justice Chaudhry in the meeting.
“I have a meeting scheduled with Chief of the Army Staff (General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani) today,” he disclosed.
Also on Sunday evening, Gilani said he talked to Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif over the phone and both agreed to resolve political as well as administrative issues through mutual understanding.
Message to the court
Gilani was not the only one who came up with a carefully-worded message for the Supreme Court not to ‘encroach’ upon parliament’s domain.
Last Friday, a parliamentary committee that crafted together the 18th constitutional amendment cautioned the court against undermining parliament’s supremacy by challenging its decisions.
“The parliament is a sovereign institution. It has the right to amend the constitution and laws the way it wants … no other organ of the state can overrule its decisions,” a participant quoted committee members as saying.
On Sunday, an aide to the premier, Sardar Latif Khosa, questioned on constitutional grounds the extension in the services of higher court judges.
“The Supreme Court did it following the law of necessity,” Khosa said in a veiled message for the higher judiciary, indicating that the government may retaliate if pressed further.
He also rejected a ‘widely-accepted’ notion that the Supreme Court could call the military to implement its decisions, arguing it was possible only with the consent of the federal government.
Separately in Karachi, a parliamentary party meeting of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), vowed to defend democracy “at any cost”.