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ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan's Supreme Court charged the embattled prime minister with contempt of court on Monday for his refusal to re-open old corruption cases against the head of his political party, President Asif Ali Zardari.
If convicted, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani could be forced to step down and face up to six months in jail. The case, which has raised tension between Pakistan's civilian leaders and the Supreme Court, could drag on and paralyse decision-making.
Local television channels flashed the news less than half an hour after Gilani arrived at the courthouse. He pleaded not guilty.
The civilian-judicial confrontation stems from thousands of old corruption cases thrown out in 2007 by an amnesty law passed under former military president Pervez Musharraf.
Zardari is its most prominent beneficiary and the main target of the court, which voided the law in 2009 and ordered the re-opening of cases accusing the president of money laundering using Swiss bank accounts.
Gilani and his advisers have refused to ask the Swiss to reopen the cases. The prime minister had appealed against the court's decision to charge him with contempt, but on Friday that appeal was dismissed, paving the way for today's indictment.
"The prime minister's actions reek of protecting the president over our system of democracy," the Express Tribune said in an editorial.
"Even if the president's immunity is upheld, it will no longer be applicable once he is out of office and in that eventuality there may be no legal or constitutional hitch in preventing the Supreme Court from going ahead on this issue."
It was a view widely held by many other newspapers and analysts, who largely hail the Supreme Court's actions as a badly needed advance for the rule of law and accountability in Pakistan, where corruption tops the list of most opinion polls as the country's biggest problem.
(Reporting by Serena Chaudhry, Qasim Nauman and Rebecca Conway; Writing by Chris Allbritton; Editing by Nick Macfie)
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