Pakistan's supreme court ordered the country's prime minister on Wednesday to appear before it to explain why he has not followed their instructions to look into corruption allegations against the president, escalating tensions between the high court and the government.
The ongoing conflict between the government and the court has dominated Pakistan's political scene this year, stoking instability at a time when many say the country's leaders should be more focused on issues like the energy crisis and the Taliban insurgency.
The court wants the prime minster to write a letter to Swiss authorities asking them to reopen an old corruption case against President Asif Ali Zardari. The government maintains that Zardari has immunity from prosecution and so far has resisted writing the letter.
The previous prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, lost his job in June in a similar showdown with the court after refusing to write the letter.
The head of a five-judge panel, Asif Saeed Khosa, said Wednesday that Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf must appear August 27. Khosa said it was unfortunate that the prime minister had failed to comply with the court order already.
If Ashraf does not appear in court or continues to refuse to write the letter, he could be charged with contempt of court.
A prominent Pakistani lawyer Abdul Hafeez Pirzada said Ashraf might also be disqualified from office if he did not write the letter to Swiss authorities, but still did not expect him to do so.
"I don't think they (the government) are in a mood to write the letter," he said.
An advisor to the prime minister, Fawad Chaudhry, said Ashraf had been informed about Wednesday's court ruling, and he would consult with his political allies before making any decision. Chaudry said the court ruling could further deepen political instability as a time when the country was facing multiple challenges.
Zardari is in little immediate danger of being tried. The Swiss have indicated they have no plans to continue with the case which dates back to the late 1990s. But the issue has become a bone of contention between the Supreme Court and the government.
The court has been aggressive in using its clout to investigate the government as well as Pakistan's security agencies, and appears to consider it unacceptable for the government to ignore its orders.
The ruling Pakistan People's Party views the court with suspicion, and supporters have questioned whether the court is becoming too powerful.
The high court convicted Ashraf's predecessor Gilani of contempt in April and ousted him from office two months later. The PPP rallied support to elect a new premier and has continued to reject the court's decision.
The PPP also tried to outmaneuver the court by passing a law designed to protect the prime minister from being charged with contempt of court but the Supreme Court last week struck down the legislation.
The court could repeatedly disqualify prime ministers over the issue, undermining the government and forcing an early national election.
Meanwhile, a Pakistani official says two guards who were transporting militant prisoners in a vehicle Tuesday were killed when the detainees overpowered them, grabbed their weapons and opened fire.
A security official said Wednesday that the attack happened in the frontier city of Peshawar. A police official in Peshawar said three of the militants were later killed in a shootout with police. The others escaped.
In a statement, the Taliban claimed that their fighters killed five security personnel during the incident.
Such conflicting claims are common as both sides inflate or deflate the casualties in order to bolster their positions.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.