ISLAMABAD - Pakistan's prime minister struck a conciliatory tone in an appearance before the Supreme Court Thursday, trying to cool down a political and legal crisis destabilizing the nuclear-armed country.
The unusual appearance by a head of government before a high court was the latest move in a high-stakes struggle between the civilian regime, the judges and Pakistan's powerful army generals, who have seized power three times since 1947.
At stake is the future of Pakistan's leadership and its ties to the U.S. Relations between the two countries have been strained since last May's unilateral U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
Pakistan's elected government is locked in bitter conflict with the army over a secret memo asking for Washington's help in curtailing the power of the generals after the bin Laden raid. The army was outraged by the memo, allegedly sent by the government, and pushed the Supreme Court to set up a commission to investigate. The government insists it did not send the memo.
On Thursday the Supreme Court stepped into another part of the struggle, a decade-old Swiss corruption case involving President Asif Ali Zardari. Some believe the military is maneuvering the court to depose Zardari and his government, while others point to bad blood between the president and the court's chief justice.
Against that complicated and tense background, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani agreed to honor a summons to appear before the court to answer charges he was ignoring the judiciary.
The court wants government prosecutors to formally ask Swiss authorities to reopen a shelved graft probe against Zardari, who was found guilty in absentia in a Swiss court in 2003 of laundering millions of dollars in kickbacks from Swiss companies. Zardari appealed, but in 2009 Swiss prosecutors dropped the case after a request from the Pakistani government.
Gilani insisted that Zardari is immune from prosecution. Judges didn't immediately accept that, but they adjourned for two weeks to hear more arguments in the case.
For two years, the government has been refusing orders to reopen the decade-old corruption case against Zardari, infuriating the judiciary. Zardari loyalists have long claimed that the court wants to get the president out of office, regardless of the law.
"It is my conviction that he (Zardari) has complete immunity inside and outside country," Gilani said in a 10-minute speech that was laced with humility. "I have no intention of ridiculing the court. We have the highest regard for the court."
Later, Gilani's lawyer, Aitzaz Ahsan, offered a concession to the court, agreeing to argue the issue of the president's immunity when the hearing resumes on Feb. 1. The government previously insisted presidential immunity was a right, and therefore didn't need to be debated in court.
"I will bow to the court order and will also speak on immunity to satisfy the court that the president has complete immunity," Ahsan told reporters.
Security was especially tight during the court session, which was also attended by several of Gilani's ministers and coalition partners. Police lined the roads in front of the Supreme Court, and two helicopters hovered over the building during the hearing.
Supporters and opponents of the government competed for attention outside the court. A group of about a dozen women chanted, "Long live Zardari!" while several dozen lawyers shouted slogans in favor of the court chief justice and against the president.
Political analysts said events at the court Thursday indicated something of a thaw.
"This will definitely contribute to reduce the tension, but it is not the end of the problems for the president," said political science professor Hasan-Askari Rizvi.