Islamabad: Pakistan plunged into a fresh political crisis with the Supreme Court ordering the arrest of Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf for allegedly receiving bribes in power projects.
62-year-old Ashraf, who became Prime Minister after the exit of Yousuf Raza Gilani in June last year, has been accused of receiving kickbacks and commission in the rental power projects (RPPs) case as federal minister for water and power.
Gilani had to quit in the midst of a raging battle with the Supreme Court over his refusal to write to Swiss authorities to reopen graft cases against President Asif Ali Zardari there. After Ashraf assumed power, the government wrote to Swiss authorities.
It is not clear as to what will be the political fallout of the Supreme Court's order against Ashraf as this is probably the first case of an incumbent Prime Minister being ordered to be arrested in a corruption case. It remains to be seen whether the ruling PPP will elect a new leader to replace Ashraf.
In March last year, the Supreme Court had declared all contracts signed by the government for "rental power plants" as illegal and directed authorities to take legal action against those responsible for clearing the projects, including Ashraf. The National Accountability Bureau (NAB), the country's main anti-corruption agency, had so far refused to act on the court's directive.
During Tuesday's hearing, the bench issued a notice for contempt of court to NAB chief Fasih Bukhari.
Angered by revelations that two officers investigating the corruption in power projects had been transferred, the three-judge apex court bench led by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry directed NAB to arrest Ashraf and over 20 other suspects within 24 hours.
The judges were particularly angered by revelations that orders were issued for transferring the two NAB officials on the false ground that the apex court was unhappy with their performance.
Legal experts pointed out that the apex court had ordered the arrest of Ashraf even though he had not been convicted for corruption in the power projects, and this immediately sparked speculation that the judiciary's action was in some way linked to Qadri's efforts to remove the government.
Tens of thousands of Qadri's supporters who gathered at a square near Parliament erupted in cheers as the cleric announced the apex court had ordered the arrest of Ashraf. Participants of his 'long march' chanted "Long Live Supreme Court" when Qadri informed them of the court's order.
Addressing his supporters, Qadri had demanded that the government quit and dissolve the national and provincial assemblies. Qadri had referred to the president and prime minister as the "ex-president and ex-prime minister" during his speech at 2.30am, triggering speculation that he was in league with elements working to remove the government.
Ashraf was power minister when contracts were signed for several rental power projects, which were part of the PPP-led government's strategy to overcome a crippling energy shortage.
Though he was dropped during a Cabinet reshuffle in 2011, Ashraf remained close to President Zardari.
The apex court began investigating the rental power plants in 2009 following a complaint of corruption from PML-Q parliamentarian Makhdoom Faisal Saleh Hayat.
The court had directed the NAB to take action against all government functionaries involved in clearing the power projects, including ministers who held the power portfolio since 2006 and officials of state-run power utilities who derived financial benefits from the contracts.
Ashraf was given the title of 'Raja Rental' after he was accused of receiving kickbacks in the rental power projects. He was also accused of buying property in London from money earned through corruption in various scams, local media said.