ISLAMABAD – Pakistan's top court on Monday gave the country's prime minister three more weeks to decide whether to obey its order to reopen an old corruption case against the president or face the prospect of being ousted from office like his predecessor.
The decision followed an appearance by Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf before the judges and was seen as a rare conciliatory gesture by the supreme court toward the government after months of conflict over the issue.
With the reprieve, the judges may be responding to criticism from the public for relentlessly pursuing the case. Some have suggested the court should focus on legal matters affecting ordinary citizens and leave the government alone to tackle pressing problems like the country's ailing economy and fight against the Taliban.
The dispute centers on a graft case in a Swiss court against President Asif Ali Zardari dating back to the late 1990s. 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.
Zardari is in little immediate danger of being tried -- the Swiss have indicated they have no plans to continue with the case, at least not while the president is in office. But the supreme court still wants the government to write the letter.
The court convicted then-Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani of contempt in April and ousted him from office two months later for refusing its order. The ruling Pakistan People's Party rallied support to elect the new premier, Ashraf, and has given no indication it plans to implement the court's decision.
Many expected the judges to announce Monday that they would charge Ashraf with contempt for also refusing to write the letter.
But they gave the prime minister until Sept. 18 to decide whether he would follow the court's order after he argued he needed more time to find a way to resolve the crisis -- an argument the government has made in the past when faced with similar deadlines.
"The government and I have full respect for the courts, and I have a strong desire to resolve this issue amicably so the prestige and respect of the judiciary is not only maintained, but is increased," Ashraf said.
It is unclear what sort of compromise could end the dispute. Zardari has said in the past that his government will never write the letter.
Some have criticized the court for its persistent pressure on the first civilian government in the country's history poised to finish its five-year term. 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. There is little chance of a coup, but the government might have to call early elections.
Also Monday, two gunmen riding a motorcycle opened fire on a car carrying Shiite Muslims in southwestern Pakistan, killing three of them, said senior police officer Wazir Khan Nasir. Two Shiites were also wounded in the attack in Quetta, the capital of southwestern Baluchistan province, he said.
No one claimed responsibility.
In a separate incident late Sunday, gunmen killed five Sunni Muslims in the town of Mach in Baluchistan, government official Pervez Ahmed said.
Baluchistan is the site of a long-running insurgency by rebels who want a greater share of the region's resources and more autonomy. It's also home to Islamist militants who frequently target Shiites.
Shiites make up a sizeable minority in Pakistan, but many Sunni extremists do not view them as true Muslims.