ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan's president on Tuesday warned the Supreme Court not to take action in violation of the constitution, referring to a judicial hearing into a secret memo seeking to rein in the powerful military, a scandal that threatens the Pakistani leader.
The political crisis revolves around a memo that was allegedly sent to Washington with President Asif Ali Zardari's support in May asking for help in stopping a supposed army coup following the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Zardari has denied the allegations.
There is long-standing tension between the civilian government and the army because the military has staged a series of coups and ruled the country for much of its 64-year history.
The government has opposed the Supreme Court's decision to open a hearing into the scandal about a week ago, saying a judicial investigation was unnecessary because parliament was already looking into the matter. The powerful army, which denied it intended to carry out a coup and was enraged by the memo, supports the investigation.
The Supreme Court opened its hearing after receiving a petition to do so from a handful of opposition politicians — a common practice in Pakistan.
Zardari warned Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry to respect the constitution, an indication he may be worried the judge will team up with the president's opponents to topple the government. Zardari has clashed with both Chaudhry and the army since he was elected in 2008.
"Anyone casting a bad eye intending to break up my federation, I will not let it break," Zardari told thousands of flag-waving supporters in southern Pakistan in a speech marking the fourth anniversary of the assassination of his wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
Zardari did not say exactly what he meant by the Supreme Court respecting the constitution, or what he fears might be the result of the inquiry. Many analysts agree the president enjoys immunity from prosecution while in office
Zardari said earlier in the day that Pakistanis should pay tribute to his slain wife by guarding against anti-democratic conspiracies, an apparent reference to tensions over the memo scandal. He said his wife's death was also a conspiracy against Pakistani democracy.
"I therefore urge all the democratic forces and the patriotic Pakistanis to foil all conspiracies against democracy and democratic institutions," said Zardari in a statement sent to reporters.
The army-backed Supreme Court hearing sparked Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to say last week that a conspiracy was under way to topple the government. He did not specifically point to the military, but said the army must be answerable to the parliament and could not act as a "state within a state."
Gilani eventually backed away from his comments after army chief Gen. Pervez Ashfaq Kayani denied any intention to stage a coup and promised to support democracy. The prime minister on Monday denied reports he would replace Kayani or the army's intelligence chief, Lt. Gen. Shuja Pasha, to neutralize the threat to his government.
Former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S., Husain Haqqani, allegedly crafted the memo sent to Washington, which promised to replace Pakistan's national security hierarchy with people favorable to the U.S. in exchange for help in reining in the military. Haqqani has denied the allegations but resigned in the wake of the scandal.
The bin Laden operation angered Pakistani officials because they weren't told about it beforehand and humiliated the army because it was not able to stop the nighttime raid near Pakistan's equivalent of West Point.
Some analysts have speculated Haqqani himself manufactured the coup story in an attempt to increase civilian control over the army.
Associated Press writer Sebastian Abbot contributed to this report.