Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani is escorted by security personnel… (Aamir Qureshi / AFP/Getty…)
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan's Supreme Court convicted Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on Thursday of contempt for failing to revive a long-standing graft case against President Asif Ali Zardari, a ruling that could eventually result in the premier's ouster and ramp up political tension in an important but troubled U.S. ally.
The court opted not to sentence Gilani to a maximum six months in prison. However, under Pakistani law, a conviction could entail disqualification from the office he has held since 2008.
The verdict comes at a time when the ruling Pakistan People's Party, stewarded by Zardari and Gilani, is especially vulnerable. As elections approach, the PPP faces a public intensely dissatisfied with its performance on issues such as a stagnant economy and crippling power shortages.
Within hours of the ruling, handed down by a seven-judge panel, opposition leaders called for Gilani's resignation.
"He should step down without causing further crisis," former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who leads the PPP's archrival party, the PML-N, told a Pakistani television channel. "The prime minister himself invited this situation."
But members of Gilani's team suggested the PPP would defend his right to stay in office. Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira called the ruling "a very unfortunate day for this country and for democracy," but saying that the court's ruling did not explicitly call for Gilani's disqualification as prime minister.
Ultimately, Zardari and other party leaders will have to weigh the benefits of staving off Gilani's removal from office through legal and legislative maneuvers against the political damage that could come with trying to keep him at the helm of government.
"Essentially, it will go to the court of public opinion," said Cyril Almeida, a leading columnist for Dawn, an English-language Pakistani newspaper. "The media and political opposition will say you have a prime minister convicted, so morally he should not stay on as prime minister…. What might happen is someone might petition the Supreme Court, saying, 'This is your order, so please disqualify the prime minister.' That seems likely to be the next step."
The contempt conviction stems from a case in Switzerland in which Zardari and his late wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, were convicted in absentia in 2003. The couple were charged with taking kickbacks from Swiss companies during Bhutto's rule in the 1990s. They appealed, and the case was dropped in 2008 at the request of the Pakistani government.
Since 2009, the Supreme Court has repeatedly demanded that Gilani's government write a letter to Swiss authorities asking that the case be revived. Gilani refused, contending that, as president, Zardari has constitutional immunity from prosecution.
Gilani was charged with contempt in January for failing to carry out the high court's order to have the Zardari case reopened. His lawyer, Aitzaz Ahsan, contended that Gilani earnestly believed that Zardari was protected by constitutional immunity and that his legal advisors had advised him several times against writing the letter.
The verdict chastised Gilani for "bringing this court and the judiciary of this country into ridicule."
Many analysts view the case as a byproduct of a feud between the Supreme Court and Zardari that dates to the early days of his presidency, when he initially balked at reinstating Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry as chief justice after Chaudhry's ouster by the country's former ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
In turning to Ahsan to represent him, Gilani hired a leader of the so-called Lawyers Movement, which successfully fought for the reinstatement of Chaudhry and other Supreme Court justices ousted by Musharraf.
Even if Gilani complied with the court's order, it's not clear whether Swiss authorities would revive the case. Swiss prosecutors have said they cannot reopen corruption proceedings against Zardari because, as president, he clearly has immunity from prosecution under Pakistani law.
Gilani's departure would leave a significant void within Zardari's inner circle. The 59-year-old prime minister is viewed by party colleagues as a deft troubleshooter able to hammer out compromises with Zardari's most difficult rivals.