Pakistan's Top Court Convicts Prime Minister

Article excerpt

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani's conviction is triggering turmoil in a government already struggling with major economic and security challenges amid tense US relations.

Pakistan's Supreme Court convicted Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani of contempt today, but sentenced him to detention until the rise of the court, which took only a few moments.

The process of convicting the prime minister began in 2009 with a Supreme Court decision ordering the government to ask authorities in Switzerland to reopen a 1990s corruption probe against President Asif Ali Zardari. Mr. Gilani refused, citing presidential immunity, and in January the court ordered contempt proceedings against him. Both belong to the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), which has been the ruling party in Pakistan since 2008.

The conviction and sentence were largely symbolic. Though they were considered a compromise to leave the government in tact, they left the prime minister weakened and facing calls to step down amid his refusal. The trial highlighted political uncertainty and tension between the government and the judiciary branch that have all but crippled an administration struggling to tackle economic, energy, and security challenges.

The uncertainty weakens Gilani's civilian government, complicating US efforts to support a stable civilian rule in a country with a long history of overthrows and interference by the military. It comes as US envoy Marc Grossman visited Islamabad for two days, his first visit since Pakistan blocked NATO supply lines to Afghanistan in November as bilateral relations seemed to hit rock bottom.

"Who will follow court orders if the government doesn't?" says Mehmood-ul-Hassan, president of the Karachi Bar Association. "What kind of a message are we sending internationally - that we have a convicted PM holding office?"

Now the government has to decide whether the conviction is enough to dismiss Gilani as prime minister.

"The PM has lost moral authority to hold office, even though if they say he has legal authority, that is just a matter of interpretation," says Ahmer Bilal Sufi, a constitutional expert. "These leaders are the role models for the public, and there will be a lot of discontent in the public if court orders are not followed," he says adding that the authority of the judiciary was also harmed because of the attitude of the government. …