Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Thursday found Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani guilty of contempt for not obeying an order to reopen a corruption case against the President Asif Ali Zardari, but the justices spared Gilani any prison time.
The lead judge, Nasirul Mulk, ruled that Gilani was guilty of contempt for “willfully flouting” the direction of the Supreme Court. The court then issued a symbolic sentence that ended just 30 seconds after it was announced.
The prime minister’s attorney, Aitzaz Ahsan, told reporters he has been asked to appeal the judgment, which he insisted was inappropriate. He said the prime minister was indicted and tried for disobeying a court order, but that he was found guilty of something else - scandalizing the judiciary.
“The words scandalizing of the court are not in the charge," Ashan said. "I have not been put to notice on that, I have not been asked to cross-examine witnesses on that, I have not been asked to produce record on that."
The conviction triggered an immediate debate over Gilani’s status as prime minister. Some legal experts, such as former Supreme Court justice Wajihuddin Ahmed, pointed out that because Gilani was sentenced to a prison term, even if only for less than one minute, he is now ineligible to sit in parliament for the next five years.
“The magnitude of the punishment is not relevant," said Ahmed. "The conviction has been made, the imprisonment has been suffered because the court passed the order, it has retired, the punishment has become effective. So, I think we are in a situation where we should move to elect a new prime minister.”
Opposition leaders, including former Pakistani leader Nawaz Sharif also said Gilani must step down, and that they will no longer accept him as the prime minister of the country.
However Gilani's lawyer, Ahsan, disputed that interpretation.
"There is no automatic immediate disqualification," he said. "The prime minister is not disqualified at this moment.”
Even if the prime minister is not legally required to resign, the conviction will hurt his standing with the public.
Ultimately, it will be up to Gilani's ruling Pakistan People's Party to decide his fate, said attorney and legal expert Babar Sattar.
"Obviously, its opened up a whole new scenario where the Pakistan People's Party will have to determine whether they want to continue to work with this prime minister, who is now a convict," Sattar said. "From an ethical and a moral standpoint, he has lost the kind of moral authority to continue to rule."
The contempt case against Prime Minister Gilani stems from a 2007 amnesty law that pardoned thousands of influential Pakistanis, including Asif Ali Zardari, the country’s president.
The legislation, called the National Reconciliation Ordinance, was struck down by the Supreme Court two years ago as being unconstitutional, and Gilani was ordered to reopen all the cases.
That court order also bound the prime minister to write to authorities in Switzerland asking them to revive a multi-million dollar money laundering case against the president.
However, Gilani and his legal advisors have maintained that Zardari enjoys legal immunity while in office and that reopening of the case would be unconstitutional.