Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani is guilty of contempt for refusing to reopen corruption cases against the president, but his sentence was only a symbolic three minutes in the courtroom.
Gilani is the first serving prime minister in Pakistan’s history to be convicted by a court and the token sentence may provoke political unrest in Pakistan, where the president and prime minister joust with the military and judiciary.
“The prime minister is found guilty of contempt for wilfully flouting the direction of the Supreme Court,” Justice Nasir-ul-Mulk ruled.
Gilani may still come under pressure to quit, but his lawyer said he would appeal the verdict, delaying any action that could see Gilani lose his job.
Gilani had faced six months in prison and the loss of his office but his detention lasted only until the court session was adjourned. Opposition members of parliament may still move to expel Gilani, and the Prime Minister has the option of appealing the guilty verdict.
“I think what they’ve done is taken it from the legal arena and chucked it into the political arena,” said Cyril Almeida, a prominent columnist for the Dawn daily newspaper.
Gilani supporters showered him with rose petals as he walked into the Islamabad court with about 1,000 police officers in riot gear standing guard and helicopters circling.
Observers say the political battle between the government and the military is really about the army is using the court to keep the government on the back foot.
The source of the current conflict is a graft case against President Asif Ali Zardari that involves kickbacks he and his late wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, allegedly received from Swiss companies when Bhutto was in power in the 1990s. They were found guilty in absentia in a Swiss court in 2003.
Zardari appealed, but Swiss prosecutors ended up dropping the case in 2008 after the Pakistani government approved an ordinance giving the president and others immunity from old corruption cases that many agreed were politically motivated.
Thousands of corruption cases were thrown out in 2007 by an amnesty law passed under Pervez Musharraf, the former military president, paving the way for a return to civilian rule.
Two years later, the Supreme Court ruled that agreement illegal and ordered cases involving Swiss banks against President Asif Ali Zardari re-opened.
Gilani and his government refused to obey the court’s order to write to Swiss authorities asking them to re-open money laundering cases against Zardari. The government argues that Zardari has immunity as the head of state.
Pakistan’s elections are to be held later this year or early next.