ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – The country’s top anti-corruption official told the Supreme Court on Thursday that he cannot comply with court orders to arrest Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf, raising the prospect of fresh confrontation between the senior judiciary and the country’s embattled leadership.
On Tuesday the chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, ordered the arrest of Mr. Ashraf and 15 other current and former officials as part of a year-old corruption prosecution relating to Mr. Ashraf’s tenure as minister for water and power between 2008 and 2011.
The order coincided with a large protest march in Islamabad, led by a charismatic cleric, and government officials accused the judge of taking advantage of the chaotic situation to press his long-standing rivalry with the government.
But on Thursday Fasih Bokhari, the head of the National Accountability Bureau, the government’s main anti-graft body, said that the investigation into Mr. Ashraf’s case had been “inaccurate” and “hurried,” and told the court that he needed more time to complete his work.
Chief Justice Chaudhry, who has pursued cases against both the political government and senior military generals with zeal, responded with ire. The three-judge bench he presides over chided Mr. Bokhari and his prosecutors for being overly timid, and accused them of behaving like defense counsel for the government.
Justice Chaudhry then ordered K.K Agha, the prosecutor general of the anti-corruption body, to immediately present investigation documents before the court. Mr. Bokhari’s team demurred, insisting the court should pass a written order if it wanted the the investigation documents brought before the court.
“An order is an order,” one of the three judges replied tersely.
The timing of the arrest order is striking. General elections are expected to be announced in the comings weeks, perhaps earlier, and set for sometime in early May, according to senior government officials.
President Asif Ali Zardari, who is the co-chairperson of the ruling party, is unlikely to enter into a fresh round of finding and nominating a new prime minister if Mr. Ashraf is dismissed by the court.
Mr. Zardari’s rivalry with Chief Justice Chaudhry reached its climax last June when the supreme court effectively dismissed Yousaf Raza Gilani as prime minister, convicting him of contempt of court in a different corruption case related to Mr. Zardari’s finances.
Meanwhile, the preacher who has camped outside the parliament in Islamabad Muhammad Tahir-ul Qadri, has drawn thousands of his followers, and he gave Mr. Zardari until the afternoon to hold a dialogue with him. But he stopped short of announcing his next course of action if his demands were not met.
“Enough is enough,” Mr. Qadri said as thousands of his followers stood, huddled together, under a pouring rain.
“You do not have any more time,” thundered Mr. Qadri, referring to the government. “We have to finish it by the end of this day today.”
Mr. Ashraf, the prime minister, said he would form a four-member delegation of government officials to hold talks with Mr. Qadri.
The interior minister, Rehman Malik, suggested Wednesday evening that the security forces could try to remove the protesters on Thursday. But the order was publicly countermanded shortly afterwards by Mr. Zardari, who is staying at his Karachi residence, highlighting the political sensitivity of the situation.
In any event, the weather was helping the government’s cause by Thursday. Heavy rain swept the capital on Thursday morning, soaking the Qadri supporters, who are estimated to number at least 20,000 people. The miserable conditions failed to dampen their spirits – television pictures showed the protestors, many hailing from towns and villages in Punjab province, dancing and chanting in the rain.
But concerns are growing over an outbreak of chest and throat infections, particularly among young children who have accompanied their parents to the protests, and the deteriorating conditions could increase pressure on Mr. Qadri to end his action.
The 61-year-old preacher, who has vowed to remain peaceful despite his aggressive and increasingly threatening rhetoric, is demanding a complete overhaul of the electoral system.
His demand of an immediate dissolution of the country’s election commission has been rejected by a majority of the ruling alliance and opposition political parties, leaving Mr. Qadri in a political no man’s land.