ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Pakistan’s Supreme Court convicted Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gilani on contempt charges Thursday for failing to revive a longstanding graft case against the president, a ruling that could pave the way for his eventual ouster and heighten political tension in an important but difficult U.S. ally.
The court could have sentenced Gilani to a maximum of six months in prison, but opted not to impose any jail term. However, under Pakistani law, a conviction could entail disqualification from office and Gilani’s removal as prime minister, a post he has held since 2008.
The decision comes at a time when President Asif Ali Zardari’s ruling Pakistan People’s Party is especially vulnerable. The country is moving into an election season, and Zardari’s party faces a public intensely dissatisfied with his government’s performance on a wide range of issues, from turning around a stagnant economy to tackling crippling power shortages.
Gilani’s lawyer, Aitzaz Ahsan, said the prime minister would appeal the verdict, which probably will delay the need for Gilani’s immediate departure. Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira stressed that the ruling did not explicitly call for Gilani’s disqualification as prime minister. Other party leaders said that PPP leadership and Gilani’s ministers will meet soon to assess the legal and political fallout and forge their next moves.
“He will stay in office, but let’s see,” Kaira said. “This is a very unfortunate day for this country and for democracy.”
The high court’s conviction of Gilani centers on a money laundering case in Switzerland that Zardari was convicted of in absentia in 2003. The case was on hold while he and his late wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, appealed, and was dropped at the request of the Pakistani government in 2008.
Since 2009, the Supreme Court has repeatedly demanded that Gilani’s government write a letter to Swiss authorities asking that the case against Zardari be revived. Gilani has consistently refused, instead contending that, as president, Zardari enjoys constitutional immunity from prosecution.
Initiated Jan. 16, the contempt case against Gilani has stretched on for 14 weeks. To represent him in court, Gilani turned to Ahsan, a leader of the so-called Lawyers Movement that successfully fought for the reinstatement of Supreme Court justices ousted from the bench by Gen. Pervez Musharraf when he was the country’s military ruler.
Ahsan consistently argued before the seven-judge panel that Gilani’s resistance to writing the letter to Swiss authorities was valid because he had always earnestly believed that Zardari was protected by constitutional immunity. Moreover, Ahsan argued that Gilani’s law ministers advised him several times against writing the letter.
The judges, however, have adamantly held from the start that because Gilani had been ordered by the high court to seek a reopening of the corruption case against Zardari, his refusal amounted to contempt of court. Even after contempt proceedings began, the high court told Gilani on several occasions that the case against him would disappear if he reversed his position and wrote the letter to Swiss authorities.
Gilani’s departure would leave a significant void within Zardari’s inner circle. The 59-year-old prime minister is viewed by party colleagues as a deft troubleshooter able to hammer out compromises with Zardari’s most difficult rivals, including the country’s powerful military chiefs and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif.
He has always been perceived as being fiercely loyal to Zardari and to the PPP, which was once led by Zardari’s slain wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. In 2001, when then-ruler Musharraf lodged charges against Gilani and other PPP loyalists that were widely viewed as politically motivated, Musharraf gave Gilani and the others the choice of forsaking their party and switching over to the general’s side. Gilani refused, and spent more than five years in a Rawalpindi prison.
Photo: Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, center right, arrives for his hearing at the Supreme Court in Islamabad. Credit: T. Mughal / EPA