Pakistan's premier has been convicted of contempt by the Supreme Court, but already served his sentence of 'imprisonment' which lasted a mere few minutes. Observers fear the verdict could have far-reaching implications.
After his last summons to the Supreme Court in February of this year, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani was convicted of contempt on Thursday by the country's highest judiciary.
The case against Gilani was first opened in 2009 when the Supreme Court ordered the government to write to Swiss authorities, requesting they reopen a graft case dating back to the late 1990s against President Asif Ali Zardari involving 60 million US dollars.
Zardari and his late wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, had been found guilty of graft by a Swiss court in absentia in 2003. He appealed the case and it was shelved in 2008 when he took office as president.
The Pakistani government has repeatedly refused to write the letter, arguing that Zardari enjoyed immunity as head-of-state, and accused judges of plotting with the military to wage a witch-hunt against him.
Gilani could have faced up to six months in prison, but the justices gave him a nominal and symbolic sentence of "imprisonment" that lasted only a few minutes. Former Justice of the Supreme Court Wajih Ud Din told DW, however, that Thursday's ruling disqualified Gilani from his office as prime minister - and not only for the time being, but "for the span of five years."
The former justice said that because the Supreme Court convicted Gilani under Article 63 1G, his disqualification was immediate and that the government had to act fast to elect a replacement.
"According to the constitution, there is no prime minister right now. We do not have a cabinet, we do not have any federal minister. So I think the wisest course of these people would be to convene a meeting of the National Assembly, elect a leader, install him as the prime minister and let the affairs of the state run."
He said it was highly likely a candidate from Gilani's own Pakistan People's Party would be chosen and that "elections could even take place today or tonight."
The matter would eventually, end up with the president, said the justice, and that he is highly likely to be summoned to court in Switzerland.
"The Pakistan law protects him only within the boundaries of Pakistan while he is in office," Wajih said, adding "but there is no constitutional protection available to a Pakistani president outside Pakistan. It may be that he has some protection under the Geneva Conventions, but that is something which has to be decided by the court in Geneva and not by the courts in Pakistan."
Ties with India, US
Senior journalist Nazir Naji told DW the verdict could have far-reaching implications for the country.
"If you take a look at the overall situation in Pakistan, everything is deteriorating. The judiciary is concentrating on political decisions rather than handling criminal cases," he said.
"The government is unstable to the extent that there exists a question mark over its very future now. My question is, who will indulge in talks and negotiations with such a government?"
Ties with the US had reached a new low after a NATO attack in November last year killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. The Pakistani government reacted by closing off its border to Afghanistan for NATO convoys. Recently, though, the government decided to lift the blockade.
"Things were finally getting better with the US and Grossman is due to meet with Pakistani officials this evening. And now, who will talk with him about long-term and other issues," Naji said.
"With respect to India, too, just as things were just starting to get better, our political stability is at stake now. All these matters with respect to Pak-India and Pak-US relations are deeply connected with our internal stability as well. Similarly, when it comes to US aid, all of these will be suspended now and we will collapse."
Civilian government vs. military
Many onlookers fear the verdict is an implication of instability in Pakistan and some even think the verdict reflects a political battle between the civilian government and the powerful military. Since its founding in 1947, Pakistan has been marred by battles between the military and the government and has been under military leadership for much of its history.
Incumbent President Zardari was elected in 2008 to replace General Musharraf, who had led a military coup in 1999. Now that Gilani is out of office, "I think that power is going into the hands of the armed forces," Naji said.
Former Justice Wajih, however, said he did not agree. "I don't think there is any truth in it with regard to confrontation between the Pakistan Armed Forces and the civilian government. They appear to be on the same page. But then who can defend a prime minister who blatantly commits crimes of contempt? Who can defend him?"
Author: Sarah Berning
Editor: Gregg Benzow