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Pakistan PM bows to court demand

Pakistan's government has bowed to a long-standing Supreme Court demand to debate whether the president enjoys immunity from a past corruption case.

The concession could help defuse a crisis threatening the US-backed administration.

The government agreed to the demand after the court threatened Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani with contempt charges for failing to reopen a decade-old case against his boss, President Asif Ali Zardari, and forced the premier to make a rare appearance before the judges. The Islamabad court gave Gilani's lawyer two weeks to prepare his argument.

The period could further reduce heightened tension between the Supreme Court and the beleaguered government, which is also battling the judges and the powerful army over a secret memo sent to Washington last year seeking help in stopping a supposed military coup.

Speculation has been rampant that the combined assault could cause the government's downfall by forcing it to accept calls for early elections.

But the government may be heartened by the Supreme Court's decision not to make any immediate moves to hold Gilani in contempt, a charge that could land him in prison for up to six months and disqualify him from holding office.

The government has long defied a 2009 Supreme Court order to write a letter to Swiss authorities asking them to reopen a corruption case against Zardari that dates back to the 1990s, claiming he enjoys immunity from prosecution while in office.

It has also ignored a demand to go before the court to argue the immunity claim, probably because members of the ruling party viewed the court's actions as a partisan campaign to take down Zardari, who has clashed with Supreme Court Chief Justice Mohammad Iftikhar Chaudhry.

Gilani delivered a nearly 10-minute speech to the seven-judge bench, which did not include Chaudhry. The prime minister expressed respect for the court and said he never intended to "ridicule" the judges. He said it was his belief that Zardari "has complete immunity inside and outside the country".

Gilani's lawyer, Aitzaz Ahsan, did most of the talking for the prime minister during the session and agreed to formally argue for the president's immunity before the judges when the hearing resumes on February 1.

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