Pakistan's Top Court Convicts Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani of Contempt

PHOTO: Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, center, leaves the Supreme court following a hearing in Islamabad, Pakistan, April 26, 2012.
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Pakistan's Supreme Court has convicted the country's Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani of contempt, the latest step in a case that has stoked political tensions for months and threatens to launch the country into a new political crisis.

"The prime minister is found guilty of contempt for willfully flouting the direction of the Supreme Court," read Justice Nasir-ul-Mulk on Thursday to a courtroom packed with Gilani supporters, many wearing Pakistani flags pinned to their lapels.

"His offence tends to bring this court and the judiciary of this country into ridicule," he said.

As part of the ruling, the Supreme Court Body ordered him sentenced only "until the rising of the court," a process that lasted mere minutes. Although the sentence was a symbolic gesture, meaning Gilani avoids any jail time, he still faces an uncertain political future. Now that he has been convicted, he could be dismissed from office.

The case against Gilani, the country's second highest ranking politician, stems from a corruption case in the 1990's against the country's President, Asif Ali Zardari, before he came to power. The corruption case was dismissed in 2007 under an amnesty rule issued by former military ruler Pervez Musharraf, but the Supreme Court later reversed the decision, ordering Gilani to reopen the probe. He refused, arguing that the President is immune from prosecution during his term. In response, the Supreme Court charged him with contempt.

The scene outside the courthouse was pandemonium as Gilani arrived to hundreds of his supporters chanting "Jia Jia Bhutto," a rallying cry for the PPP. As he emerged, throngs of people, including several members of cabinet, jostled for position with journalists and riot police to get close to the Prime Minister, before he was quickly ushered away.

For the ruling PPP, which had threatened nation-wide protests if Gilani was sentenced to any jail time, the verdict represents neither a victory nor a defeat. The PPP has routinely criticized the Supreme Court for being too politicized and targeting members of its party unfairly.

"It's not a new case, it's not a new history," said current Cabinet Minister Firdous Ashiq Awan, speaking to media outside the courthouse. "It's the continuity of the previous biased behaviors of the courts." Others say the verdict amounts to a victory for the Pakistani people.

"In our country, the law is now supreme," said Raja Asif Abbas, a former federal prosecutor who conducted several high profile corruption cases in the past. "The constitution is now the supreme thing. The rule of law is there no matter what. If you are driving a cab or if you are the chief executive of the country, we are all treated equally before the eyes of the law."

Now that Gilani has been found guilty, the issue will be referred to the speaker of the House, who can begin a months-long process that would culminate in Gilani's dismissal from his post. Equally as likely, analysts say, the ruling party could wait out the process, and call elections for the fall, bypassing the dismissal process altogether.

Gilani's lawyer has already said he will appeal the decision, a move that could delay things even further.

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