Pakistan on Tuesday plunged into a fresh political crisis with the Supreme Court ordering the arrest of Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf for allegedly receiving bribes in power projects.
Already rocked by cleric Tahirul Qadri’s ongoing protest seeking dissolution of provincial and national assemblies, Pakistan appeared headed for uncertainty with the court setting a 24-hour deadline for authorities to implement its arrest orders that may cost a second Prime Minister to lose office in less than a year.
62-year-old Ashraf, who became Prime Minister after the exit of Yousuf Raza Gilani in June last year, has been accused of receiving kickbacks and commission in the Rental Power Projects (RPPs) case as federal minister for water and power.
Mr. Gilani had to quit in the midst of a raging battle with the Supreme court over his refusal to write to Swiss authorities to reopen graft cases against President Asif Ali Zardari there. After Mr. Ashraf assumed power, the government wrote to Swiss authorities.
It is not clear as to what will be the political fallout of the Supreme Court’s order against Mr. Ashraf as this is probably the first case of an incumbent Prime Minister being ordered to be arrested in a corruption case. It remains to be seen whether the ruling PPP will elect a new leader to replace Mr. Ashraf.
In March last year, the Supreme Court had declared all contracts signed by the government for “rental power plants” as illegal and directed authorities to take legal action against those responsible for clearing the projects, including Mr. Ashraf.
The National Accountability Bureau (NAB), the country’s main anti-corruption agency, had so far refused to act on the court’s directive.
During Tuesday’s hearing, the bench issued a notice for contempt of court to NAB chief Fasih Bukhari.
Officers' transfer irks Court
Concerned over the revelations that two officers investigating the corruption in power projects had been transferred, the three-judge apex court bench led by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry directed NAB to arrest Mr. Ashraf and over 20 other suspects within 24 hours.
The Supreme Court took seriously the fact that orders were issued for transferring the two NAB officials on the false ground that the apex court was unhappy with their performance.
Legal experts pointed out that the apex court had ordered the arrest of Mr. Ashraf even though he had not been convicted for corruption in the power projects, and this immediately sparked speculation that the judiciary’s action was in some way linked to Mr. Qadri’s efforts to remove the government.
Tens of thousands of Mr. Qadri’s supporters who gathered at a square near Parliament here erupted in cheers as the cleric announced the apex court had ordered the arrest of Mr. Ashraf.
Participants of his ‘long march’ chanted “Long Live Supreme Court” when Mr. Qadri informed them of the court’s order.
Addressing his supporters early this morning, Mr. Qadri had demanded that the government quit and dissolve the national and provincial assemblies.
Mr. Qadri had referred to the President and Prime Minister as the “ex-President and ex-Prime Minister” during his speech at 2.30 am, triggering speculation that he was in league with elements working to remove the government.
Mr. Ashraf was Power Minister when contracts were signed for several rental power projects, which were part of the PPP-led government’s strategy to overcome a crippling energy shortage.
Though he was dropped during a Cabinet reshuffle in 2011, Ashraf remained close to President Zardari.