Pakistan's top court convicts prime minister

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani's conviction is triggering turmoil in a government already struggling with major economic and security challenges amid tense US relations.

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    Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani (c.) surrounded by guards, leaves the Supreme court following a hearing in Islamabad, Pakistan, Thursday, April 26, 2012.
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Pakistan’s Supreme Court convicted Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani of contempt today, but sentenced him to detention until the rise of the court, which took only a few moments. 

The process of convicting the prime minister began in 2009 with a Supreme Court decision ordering the government to ask authorities in Switzerland to reopen a 1990s corruption probe against President Asif Ali Zardari. Mr. Gilani refused, citing presidential immunity, and in January the court ordered contempt proceedings against him. Both belong to the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which has been the ruling party in Pakistan since 2008.

The conviction and sentence were largely symbolic. Though they were considered a compromise to leave the government in tact, they left the prime minister weakened and facing calls to step down amid his refusal. The trial highlighted political uncertainty and tension between the government and the judiciary branch that have all but crippled an administration struggling to tackle economic, energy, and security challenges. 

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The uncertainty weakens Gilani's civilian government, complicating US efforts to support a stable civilian rule in a country with a long history of overthrows and interference by the military. It comes as US envoy Marc Grossman visited Islamabad for two days, his first visit since Pakistan blocked NATO supply lines to Afghanistan in November as bilateral relations seemed to hit rock bottom. 

“Who will follow court orders if the government doesn’t?” says Mehmood-ul-Hassan, president of the Karachi Bar Association. “What kind of a message are we sending internationally – that we have a convicted PM holding office?”  

Now the government has to decide whether the conviction is enough to dismiss Gilani as prime minister.

“The PM has lost moral authority to hold office, even though if they say he has legal authority, that is just a matter of interpretation,” says Ahmer Bilal Sufi, a constitutional expert. “These leaders are the role models for the public, and there will be a lot of discontent in the public if court orders are not followed,” he says adding that the authority of the judiciary was also harmed because of the attitude of the government.

Gilani’s lawyers pointed out that according to the constitution only the speaker of the National Assembly can disqualify someone from the parliament. They said that the prime minister would continue to work.

“We have 30 days to file an appeal, and we will do so after going through the detailed verdict for which we are still waiting for,” said the prime minister’s legal counsel, Aitaz Ahsan.

Mr. Hassan says that although the court has shown restraint, it could still call in the military to ensure its orders are followed. “It is the last option available, if government continues to defy the courts.”

Fauzia Wahab, who is member of the National Assembly’s ruling party, dismisses talk of Gilani’s disqualification for prime minister. “There has been an effort to create an environment to erode the authority of the prime minister of Pakistan and all executive decisions are being taken by the courts for the last two years or so.”

Following the court’s decision, the main opposition party’s head in the parliament, Nawaz Sharif, asked for an immediate resignation of the prime minister and early elections in a TV interview. There was also a petition filed in Sindh High Court later, to ask the courts to stop the PM from working in office, which has been approved for a hearing in the upcoming week.

Shops were closed as people across Sindh and South Punjab, where the PPP has a stronghold, took to the streets, chanting slogans denouncing the verdict.

Some observers feel that the PPP government will use this verdict to gain political martyrdom. “There is no question of military intervention. There is a lengthy legal process that is to be exhausted before anything can happen,” says Fahd Husain, a leading talk show host and a senior journalist. “I feel that after the government has politicized this verdict enough in a way to show they have been victimized by the court once again, there will be a change of the prime minister,” he says.

Judicial activist and political commentator, Samad Khurram, adds, “it is important to note that the court gave only a symbolic punishment that will not derail democracy.”

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