Gilani is showered with rose petals outside the Supreme Court in Islamabad on Thursday. (Reuters)
Islamabad, Apr 26: Pakistan's Supreme Court on Thursday convicted Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani of contempt of court but gave him a token punishment of less than even two minutes in a case that could see him stepping down as a fall out to "willfully flouting, disregarding and disobeying the court's direction.
"The accused Syed Yousuf raza Gilani, prime Minister of Pakistan/Chief Executive of the federation is found guilty of and convicted for contempt of court," Judge Nasirul Mulk, who headed the seven-judge panel that heard the contempt case, said in a short order.
Gilani, who became Prime Minister after his Pakistani Peoples Party (PPP) came to power in March 2008, was charged with contempt in February over his refusal to order re-opening of corruption cases against President Asif Ali Zardari in Swiss courts.
Gilani had pleaded not guilty and opted to defend himself in the case, which can weaken his government aiming to complete its five year tenure in March 2013.
The court declared Gilani guilty of and convicted for contempt of court after being satisfied that "the contempt committed by him is substantially detrimental to the administration of justice and tends to bring this court and the judiciary of this country into ridicule."
Gilani appeared in person in the court amid very tight security in and around the court's building. Hunderds of roits police equipped with shields and batons were deployed at the entrance of the court, which located on the constitution avenue. Nobody was allowed to enter the court premises without valid security passes as barbed wires were also laid on all crossings of the avenue to prevent any unauthorised person to approach the Supreme Court.
However, a debate erupted among the legal fraternity on subsequent part of the court's order on the issue of disqualification, which said, "as regards the sentence to be passed against the convict, we note that the findings and conviction for contempt of court are likely to entail some serious consequences in terms of article 63(1)(g) of the constitution, which may be treated as mitigating factors towards the sentence to be passed against him".
"He is, therfore, punished under section 5 of the Contempt of Court Ordinance with imprisonment till the rising of the court today."
The section five of the Contempt of Court Ordinance only deals with punishment and does not invoke disqualification or deseating of any holder of a public office but the Article 63(1)(g) clearly calls for disqualification of those defaming judiciary bringing it into disrepute.
Officials and lawyers believed that the disqualification process will commence after the matter is referred to Speaker of the National Assembly Dr. Fehmida Mirza, who if convinced with contents of the judgement will pass it on to Election Commission, which will again hear the case and take a decision within 90 days.
"This order does not disqualify Prime Minister Gilani. If it is decided that the issue of disqualification has arisen, it will be sent to speaker and she will refer it to the election commission," senior jurist and former attorney general Iqbal Haider said.
Another leading lawyer and former president of the SUpreme Court Bar Association, Hamid Khan "In my opinion, he stands disqualified after the Suprteme Court's verdict because he has already been sentenced.However, he said,"legally speaking it is yet to be decided whether disqualification holds ground under the judgement or not".
The fire-brand attorney general Irfan Qadir also did not confirm that Gilani stood disqualified with announcement of the verdict.
"There is no ambiguity in the order. The Prime Minister continues as Prime Minister," he told reporters in Islamabad.
He said the speaker will send reference for disqualification against the speaker only if she is convinced that the judgement is valid. She will act otherwise if she thinks the court's judgement is invalid. Head of the main opposition party, Pakistan Muslim League(N), Nawaz Sharif said Gilani should step down or otherwise it would bring the parliament and office of the Prime Minister into disrepute.
He declared,"We cannot accept him prime minister after today's verdict."
Chief of the radical Jamaat-e-Islami party Syed Munawar Hussain, also asked the prime minister to quit, saying that"Mr Gilani has lost the moral ground to serve as Prime Minister any longer after the judgement."
The Supreme Court had indicted Gilani after he failed to give an assurance to the apex court that he would write to Swiss authorities to re-open corruption cases against President Zardari, who also happens to be co-chairman of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)..
Known as "Mr. Ten percent" for his involvement in corruption cases, Zardari was among over 8,000 politicians, government officials and bureaucrats who got amnesty from graft charges under the infamous National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO).
The ordinance had been promulgated by former President Pervez Musharraf in 2007 as part of a power sharing deal with opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, who was killed in a gun and suicide attack the same year, paving way for his spouse to become the head of state following February 2008 parliamentary elections.
The court ordered re-opening of all cases of corruption under December 2009 judgement that scrapped the NRO which also benefitted among others several influential politicians including Zardari's close confidante and sitting interior minister Rehman Malik, Mutahida Qaumi Movement Chief Altaf Hussain.
Bhutto and Zardari allegedly used Swiss bank accounts to launder about 12 million dollars in bribes paid by different companies seeking contracts for customs inspection in Pakistan in the 1990s.