ISLAMABAD – Pakistan's government told the Supreme Court on Wednesday that it will not reopen an old corruption case against the president, defying a judicial order that has brought down one prime minister and threatens his replacement.
The crisis has roiled Pakistan's political system for months, distracting attention from what many Pakistanis believe are more pressing problems, such as the country's ailing economy and fight against the Taliban.
The dispute centers on a graft case against President Asif Ali Zardari dating back to the late 1990s in Swiss court, a time when he became known as "Mr. 10 percent" for his reputation of demanding kickbacks on government contracts.
The Pakistani Supreme Court has demanded the government write a letter to Swiss authorities asking them to reopen the case. The government has refused, saying Zardari enjoys immunity from prosecution while in office.
The court convicted former Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani of contempt and ousted him from office in June for refusing to write the letter. The ruling Pakistan People's Party rallied support to elect a new premier, Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, and has remained defiant.
Pakistan's attorney general, Irfan Qadir, appeared before the court Wednesday and told the judges that Ashraf also refused to reopen the case because of the president's immunity.
"Your order is not implementable," said Qadir.
He accused the lead judge, Asif Saeed Khosa, of being biased against the president and said he should recuse himself from the proceedings — a demand rejected by Khosa.
Many government supporters have accused the Supreme Court of relentlessly pursuing the case because of bad blood between Zardari and Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry.
Khosa demanded the new prime minister write the letter to the Swiss, but also seemed to soften the court's stance, saying the judges would respect the president's immunity if the government obeyed their order.
He also gave the government more time to come up with a solution. Wednesday was the initial deadline for the government to say whether it would fulfill the court's order, but Khosa adjourned the hearing until Aug. 8.
The judge's somewhat softer stance could be a reaction to criticism of the court for threatening to bring down the first civilian government poised to finish its five-year term in the country's history. Past governments were toppled by direct or indirect intervention by the country's powerful army, often with help of the judiciary. The current government's term ends in early 2013.
It's unclear whether the judge's comments will alter the government's stance. Zardari has said in the past that his government would never write the letter.
"I will make a genuine and serious effort to solve this issue," said Qadir.
The case against Zardari relates to kickbacks he and his late wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, allegedly received from Swiss companies when Bhutto was in power in the 1990s. They were found guilty in absentia in Swiss court in 2003.
Zardari appealed, but Swiss prosecutors dropped the case after the Pakistani parliament passed an ordinance giving the president and others immunity from old corruption cases that many agreed were politically motivated.
The bill was decried by many in Pakistan, who saw it as an attempt to subvert the law. The Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in 2009 and ordered the government to write a letter to Swiss authorities requesting they reopen the case.
Also Wednesday, militants coming from Afghanistan armed with assault rifles attacked a paramilitary checkpoint in northwest Pakistan, wounding two soldiers, officials said.
The attack occurred in Dalasa village in the Kurram tribal area, said Rasheed Khan, a local government official.
At least 20 militants were involved in the attack, Pakistani military officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The militants escaped across the border after the attack, and the Pakistani army fired artillery in retaliation, said Khan.
The Afghan government said Sunday that four civilians died when hundreds of shells and rockets fired from Pakistan hit homes along frontier areas where insurgents have staged cross-border attacks.
The government did not openly blame the Pakistani military for the artillery barrage, but they have done so in the past.
Both countries criticize each other for not doing enough to stop cross-border attacks by militants.
Associated Press writer Hussain Afzal contributed to this report from Parachinar, Pakistan.