The Pakistani government came under attack on Tuesday as the Supreme Court ordered the arrest of the country’s prime minister. It was a stormy day that ratcheted tensions ahead of national elections later this year. The Supreme Court, which has clashed repeatedly with Pakistan’s political leaders in recent years, issued the arrest order for Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf and a number of other officials over allegations of illegal payments for electricity generating projects when Ashraf was minister for water and power.
Speaking on a local broadcaster, Fawad Chaudhry, one of Ashraf’s advisers, called the court’s decision ‘a soft coup’ against democracy. The prime minister has consistently denied the allegations, he said. Last year, the Supreme Court ousted Ashraf’s predecessor, Yousuf Raza Gilani, in a contempt case related to old corruption charges against President Asif Ali Zardari.
The arrest order for Ashraf was music to the ears of supporters of Tahir-ul-Qadri, a Muslim cleric who wants Pakistan’s leaders thrown out in favour of a caretaker government to bring about electoral reform and flush out corruption. The demonstrators welcomed the court decision chanting, ‘Long Live Supreme Court.’
A senior official of the governing Pakistan People’s Party, which is headed by Zardari, called the court’s decision ‘a conspiracy.’ Sharjeel Memon suggested the order had ‘a direct connection’ with Qadri’s movement.
Ashraf is accused of accepting kickbacks from power companies to approve expensive projects, known as Rental Power Projects (RPPs), that in reality generated very little electricity.
Pakistan regularly grapples with chronic power outages, with its booming population putting a strain on the public power grid. So, the government had to rely on private power producers.
Ashraf is alleged to have used the kickback from these private firms to buy property abroad. The accusations earned him the derisive nickname ‘Rental Raja,’ and the Supreme Court eventually stripped him of his former ministerial role.
If authorities follow through on the court’s order and arrest Ashraf, he will still remain prime minister for the time being, said Salman Akram Raja, a constitutional expert.
“The court hasn’t convicted him; he is an accused at this stage,” he said. The political drama set off by the Supreme Court followed unrest in Islamabad’s streets earlier on Tuesday. Brief clashes took place between security forces and Qadri’s supporters as the crowd moved into the area near the parliament where protests regularly take place.
It was reported that police fired shots in the air and lobbed tear gas at the crowd. The unrest subsided after 15 minutes, and the protesters continued peacefully.
‘Arrest him within 24 hours’
A three-member bench led by Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry ordered the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) to arrest 16 accused including the PM within 24 hours and present them before the court tomorrow.