Pakistan’s prime minister was on Thursday convicted of contempt of court by the country’s highest court but given only a token sentence in a case that could still see him thrown out of office. Gilani had faced a maximum sentence of six months in prison, but the court ordered him to be “imprisoned” until the hearing adjourned and he emerged shortly afterwards smiling and waving to supporters.
The question now is whether he will be disqualified from office, which would add to political instability in a country already troubled by Al-Qaeda and Taliban violence.
Under Pakistan’s constitution anyone convicted of defaming or ridiculing the judiciary is barred from being an MP, but legal experts say the process to disqualify Gilani could be a lengthy one, involving the parliamentary speaker and the Election Commission.
“For reasons to be recorded later Prime Minister and chief executive Yousuf Raza Gilani is found guilty and convicted for contempt of court,” Justice Nasir ul Mulk, the head of the seven-judge Supreme Court bench, said.
Mulk said the conviction was “likely to entail serious consequences” for Gilani, and this was taken in mitigation with regards to his sentence.
The case has been highly politically charged, with members of the government accusing judges of over-stepping their reach and of trying to bring down the prime minister and president, a year before the administration would become the first in Pakistan to complete an elected term.
Earlier, Gilani drove in a small motorcade to the Supreme Court complex, where members of his council of ministers were waiting for him.
The premier then walked towards the building flanked by his son Abdul Qadeer Gilani and interior minister Rehman Malik as his supporters showered rose petals on him.
He stopped at the door of the building and waved to his supporters before going inside. The proceedings in the packed courtroom began at around 9.30am.
After the judges entered the room, Gilani walked and stood at the rostrum with law minister Farooq Naek and his lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan. The government put in place strict security arrangements for Gilani’s third appearance in the Supreme Court in the contempt case.
Helicopters mounted aerial surveillance were also put in place while over 2,000 security personnel were deployed in the “Red Zone” where the apex court and parliament is located.
The Supreme Court has been pushing the government to reopen cases of money laundering against President Zardari in Switzerland since December 2009, when it struck down a graft amnesty (National Reconciliation Ordinance) issued by former military ruler Pervez Musharraf.
The government has refused to act, saying the President enjoys immunity in Pakistan and abroad.