Pakistan Court gives PM breathing space

Pakistan's new Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf gestures as he arrives at the coalition party headquarters of Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) in Karachi. Picture: AFP.
ISLAMABAD - Pakistan's increasingly powerful Supreme Court has given Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf more time to re-open a corruption case against the country's president.

Ashraf, who could be charged with contempt of court or face disqualification if he does not comply, has until 25 September to submit a draft of a letter to Swiss authorities asking them to reopen a corruption case against President Asif Ali Zardari.

The case has fuelled tension in a long-running standoff between the government and the judiciary.

Supreme Court Judge Asif Saee d Khosa said Ashraf was "exempt" from taking action until 25 September.

Ashraf's predecessor, Yusuf Raza Gilani, was declared in contempt of court in June over the same issue and disqualified from holding the post of prime minister.

If Ashraf is disqualified, the ruling Pakistan People's Party can simply nominate a new prime minister since it has a comfortable majority in parliament.

But any prolonged political instability would further distract an unpopular government which has failed to tackle a wide range of issues, from a Taliban insurgency to crippling power cuts.

Thousands of corruption cases were thrown out in 2007 by an amnesty law passed under former military president Pervez Musharraf, paving the way for a return to civilian rule.

Two years later, the Supreme Court ruled that agreement illegal, and ordered the reopening of money laundering cases against Zardari that involved Swiss bank accounts.

The government has refused to obey the court's order to contact Swiss authorities to reopen the cases, arguing Zardari had immunity as the head of state.