ISLAMABAD – The Supreme Court convicted Pakistan's prime minister of contempt on Thursday but spared him a prison term for refusing to reopen a corruption case against his boss, the president, leaving the premier in power but facing fresh calls to resign.
The ruling against Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani added to political uncertainty and tensions between the government and the court, effectively crippling an administration that has shown little will to tackle the economic and security challenges facing the country.
Thursday's hearing had been widely anticipated by opponents of Gilani and President Asif Ali Zardari, who were hoping the Supreme Court would sentence the prime minister to prison and order his immediate dismissal from office. That would have triggered a major political crisis, brought criticism on the court and could have benefited Gilani and Zardari electorally by making them martyrs in the eyes of their supporters.
Gilani is the longest-serving prime minister in the history of Pakistan, where civilian governments have repeatedly been toppled by the country's powerful military, often with the support of the Supreme Court, which critics allege is heavily politicized. Corruption charges have routinely been used to target those in power, or seeking to return.
Gilani's conviction in a court of law means there are now grounds to initiate dismissal proceedings, which involves the speaker of the parliament and the election commission. It could take up to four months and be fiercely contested every step of the way.
Gilani arrived at the court house flanked by government ministers and in a shower of rose petals tossed by supporters.
The ruling said he was guilty of contempt but would serve a sentence only "until the rising of the court," or by the time the judges left the chamber. That happened about three minutes after the verdict was handed down.
Outside, government loyalists fumed at the court ruling, foreshadowing more bitter conflict between the government and the judiciary.
His lawyer said Gilani would appeal, further delaying any action against him in a case that has its roots in a Supreme Court decision in 2009. It picked up pace in January this year, when the court ordered contempt proceedings against the prime minister.
Elections are scheduled for later this year or early next, meaning the government could possibly last out its term with Gilani still in charge. That is a feat in itself in a country with a history of repeated coups and judicial machinations against elected governments.
"With utmost respect, I have to say this court order is absolutely illegal," said Attorney General Arfan Qadir. "This order is to be ignored," he said.
The turmoil could complicate U.S. hopes of renegotiating its stalled relationship with Pakistan. Washington wants supply lines to NATO and US troops reopened after Islamabad shut them in November in a protest against a deadly U.S air raid on its troops. Pakistan wants an end to drone strikes, more money for hosting the supply routes and an apology for the border incident.
In his first remarks after the ruling, Gilani gave no sign he was thinking of stepping down and only said the Cabinet would be briefed about it and that he would meet his coalition partners later Thursday.
Pakistan's opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, said his party thinks Gilani should go.
"He would be causing insult to the Parliament by continuing," he said "He should resign to avoid any further crisis."
Political analysts said members of Gilani's party and his coalition partners may well also pressure him to step down, figuring it's time to ditch a leader who has been convicted in a court of law. The ruling Pakistan's Peoples Party should have the numbers in parliament to elect a replacement, but it may not be smooth.
"It's a political decision now," said Cyril Almeida, a political commentator. "Is the damage they sustain having Gilani continue in office less than the benefits of having a martyr at the helm."
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.
The Pakistani Supreme Court ruled the ordinance unconstitutional in 2009 and ordered the government to write a letter to Swiss authorities requesting they reopen the case against Zardari. Gilani has refused, saying the Pakistani constitution grants the president immunity from criminal prosecution while in office.
It is far from clear whether Swiss authorities would pay any attention to such a letter. A Swiss prosecutor said last year that Zardari had immunity, and there are also statute of limitations issues. The refusal by the government to send the "Swiss letter" is in large part political. It doesn't want to be seen initiating a graft case against Zardari, especially one that involves his ex-wife, Bhutto.
Government loyalists have acccused the chief of the Supreme Court of having a feud against Zardari. Supporters of the judiciary say it is trying to uphold the law in a country where the country's politicians have engaged in massive corruption for years.