Pakistani Prime Minister Gilani Convicted of Contempt

Pakistan convicted Prime Minister Gilani of contempt—though he only spent 30 seconds in jail. By Fasih Ahmed and Jahanzeb Aslam.

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani arrived at Pakistan’s Supreme Court in a hail of rose petals on Thursday morning, surrounded by cabinet ministers, coalition allies, and hundreds of fired-up loyalists from the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party. And although he left the court with the same self-assurance, equanimity, stoicism—and protocol—Gilani now stands a convicted man and is poised to lose the office he was elected to, nearly unanimously, over four years ago.

After months of deliberations, the court found Gilani “guilty of and convicted for contempt of court … for willful flouting, disregard and disobedience of this court’s direction” and slapped him with a token sentence: “imprisonment till the rising of the court.” The court’s preliminary order also said Gilani’s behavior has been “substantially detrimental to the administration of justice and tends to bring this court and the judiciary of this country into ridicule.”

Gilani’s conviction comes on the second day of Marc Grossman’s fence-mending visit to Islamabad. The U.S. special envoy for AfPak met with the Army chief yesterday and foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar today pressing for the reopening of NATO supply lines through Pakistan, expressing regret over the NATO air strikes in Mohmand agency last November that killed 24 Pakistani troops, and promising swift clearance of Coalition dues to Pakistan. In his press appearance today, Grossman did not mention Gilani’s conviction, which is not expected to have an immediate bearing on U.S.-Pakistan relations. “Moving forward, the government will be focused on its survival,” political analyst Hasan-Askari Rizvi told The Daily Beast. But bilateral relations will take a backseat as legal and political issues pile up for Gilani. “The meetings will continue, but without firm guidance,” he says.

The contempt case was one of several in which the ruling party is squaring off with the elected government. Today’s proceedings started at 9:30 a.m. and lasted less than five minutes. The judges left the courtroom, packed with Gilani loyalists, within 30 seconds of the ruling. And although they convicted Gilani under the country’s contempt laws, they also referred to an article of the Constitution which stands to disqualify Gilani from remaining in Parliament.

At issue was the court’s demand that Gilani write to Swiss authorities asking them to reopen old corruption cases against his boss, President Asif Ali Zardari, and his assassinated wife, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, and Gilani’s refusal to do so on the grounds that the president enjoys immunity from criminal prosecution under the Constitution. In March 2010, Daniel Zappelli‚ Switzerland’s prosecutor-general, supported Gilani’s case. “We can’t prosecute Mr. Zardari while he has immunity unless Pakistan lifts that immunity‚” he said. “And if he doesn’t have immunity‚ why don’t they try him in Pakistan?”

On his way out of the courtroom, Gilani told reporters that the ruling was “inappropriate.” Pakistan’s attorney-general, Irfan Qadir, also called the verdict “unconstitutional and unlawful,” while Gilani’s lawyer Sen. Aitzaz Ahsan said the court had convicted Gilani on a charge that had not even been framed. Ahsan said he will file a petition challenging the conviction. The federal cabinet, after its meeting this afternoon chaired by Gilani, said the verdict was “political” and that there were no moral grounds for the prime minister to resign.

This, of course, doesn’t wash with the opposition. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said his party “no longer regards Yousaf Raza Gilani as the constitutional prime minister of Pakistan.” Sharif wants Gilani to resign immediately instead of invoking the constitutionally-mandated process for his disqualification in Parliament, and he wants snap elections. “The real culprit here is Asif Ali Zardari. Gilani is merely a puppet,” he said, trying to sound sympathetic. “We want a caretaker setup and the caretaker prime minister must adhere to the Supreme Court’s wishes and write a letter to the Swiss authorities.”

The reaction to the expected conviction was swift. In Sindh, the stronghold of the ruling party, protestors took to the streets railing against the verdict. And while the ruling party is working to win more time for Gilani, the prime minister will have to go in a matter of weeks. Zardari has already discussed his possible replacement with coalition allies. These include his sister Faryal Talpur, senior party sources confirmed to The Daily Beast.

The court ruling works in Gilani and the government’s favor. What the court viewed as Gilani’s defiance and stonewalling was really an act of political cunning and self-perseveration. In standing by Zardari and risking his office, Gilani has secured his own position and his children’s future in the country’s largest political party, which is hymning him as the anti-Farooq Leghari, the late former Pakistani president and Bhutto loyalist who sacked his own party’s government. This mythmaking will also serve to protect Gilani and his children from court inquiries into their alleged corruption. Recently, his son Musa, who is the subject of an ongoing Supreme Court corruption inquiry, was elected to Parliament by an overwhelming majority. Any further action against the Gilanis will be presented, not entirely inaccurately, as persecution.

Since assuming office, Gilani, 59, quickly emerged as a dulcet-toned consensus builder whose government has passed three amendments to the Constitution and who helped his party build bridges with both the Army and the Supreme Court. In March 2008, Gilani ordered the release of judges, including Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, detained by the previous government and he restored them to their old jobs through a post-midnight announcement almost a year later. Gilani also escaped an assassination attempt in September 2008.

Gilani remains confident about his political future. During the last standoff with the Army, he told reporters: “I have won several elections in the past, so had my father, so had my grandfather, so had my great-grandfather, and so had my ancestors going all the way back to the Mughal era.” Gilani’s conviction has secured him and his children several more electoral wins.