Pakistan’s Gilani Guilty of Contempt, Spared Jail Term

Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani will file a review appeal against today’s contempt of court conviction and parliament’s speaker will decide whether he stays in office while that challenge is heard, his lawyer said.

“I don’t think the prime minister should resign after this verdict,” the lawyer, Aitzaz Ahsan, said in a press conference in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. “There’s no automatic or immediate disqualification. It’s now up to the speaker of the National Assembly to decide.”

The Supreme Court ruled Gilani guilty of contempt for not obeying its earlier order to reopen corruption cases against President Asif Ali Zardari, while sparing him a prison term. In deciding to oppose the judgment, Gilani is likely to drag out legal proceedings for months.

Today’s verdict, which follows a year of political turmoil involving the government, judiciary and military, could distract the ruling coalition as the economy stumbles and the U.S. bids to mend a strained relationship with Pakistan that’s central to efforts to stabilize neighboring Afghanistan.

Gilani’s conviction “will add to the already charged political environment, and prolong the legal crisis,” Mehdi Hasan, a political analyst and dean of the School of Communications at the Lahore-based Beaconhouse National University, said by phone. “The best course for this government now is to resign and announce new elections.”

Symbolic Sentence

After convicting Gilani, the court symbolically sentenced him to detention for the few minutes until judges adjourned the hearing. The court said Gilani was guilty of “willful flouting” of an earlier order to pursue graft investigations in Swiss courts against his party colleague Zardari.

Flanked by ministers and coalition partners, Gilani waved to supporters after becoming the first serving Pakistani prime minister to be convicted by the top court. His immediate political future now rests with the country’s parliamentary speaker, Fehmida Mirza, who is a close aide of Zardari.

Even if Gilani were to be removed, the alliance headed by his Pakistan People’s Party would have the parliamentary majority needed to elect its favored successor. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for early next year.

During hearings that lasted for about three months, Ahsan failed to convince judges that the constitution grants the president immunity from prosecution while in office.

The leader of Pakistan’s main opposition party, Nawaz Sharif, said in an interview with the Geo television channel that Gilani must resign as he had lost the right to govern.

Slow Growth

Economic growth sank to 2.4 percent in the last fiscal year, one of the lowest expansions in the past decade, as militant attacks, record monsoon floods and the nation’s worst energy crisis deterred investment. The government cut its growth forecast for the year that ends in June to 4 percent.

Pakistan is also bidding to reset its ties with the U.S. after closing its border for the resupply of U.S. forces fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan and suspending much military and intelligence cooperation after American helicopters attacked two Pakistani border posts on Nov. 26, killing 24 soldiers.

The U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Marc Grossman, met with Pakistan’s army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani today in Islamabad.

Zardari and his party may try to gain political mileage from today’s verdict ahead of parliamentary elections, presenting it as a judicial witch-hunt against an elected government, according to analysts including Rashid Khan, a professor of international relations at the University of Sargodha in central Pakistan.

Musharraf Amnesty

That may pay off in a nation where military interventions have ended the terms of elected prime ministers early.

Pakistan’s army, which has ruled the country for half its independent history, has backed a separate Supreme Court probe into claims Zardari sent a memo to top U.S. military officials seeking help to prevent a coup following last year’s killing of Osama bin Laden.

Judges issued a contempt notice to Gilani on Jan. 16 after saying he violated his oath of office by failing to re-open graft probes against Zardari and others that former military ruler Pervez Musharraf suspended in 2007.

“Writing a letter to Swiss authorities will be just like stabbing my president in the back,” Gilani told supporters at a political rally in March. “I would prefer going to jail rather than violating the constitution.”

Bribes

Negotiating with political parties to stay on as a civilian president, Musharraf decreed an amnesty to halt corruption probes against 8,000 politicians and officials, including Zardari and his wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

The Supreme Court in 2009 ordered the government to formally ask Swiss authorities to revive cases there against Zardari and Bhutto, who was assassinated at a political rally.

Bhutto and Zardari collected and laundered bribes totaling $11.7 million for awarding customs inspection contracts to Swiss companies in 1994, an investigating magistrate in Geneva recorded in 2003.

The couple received six-month suspended prison sentences the same year from a Swiss judge. The punishments were canceled by a Swiss tribunal in 2004 after Bhutto appealed. New bribery charges were then brought, the Swiss newspaper Le Temps reported. Zardari has denied all charges against him, saying they were politically motivated.

The New York Times reported today that it would be “virtually impossible” to revive the cases against Zardari in Switzerland due to his claimed immunity and the European country’s 15-year statute of limitations.

To contact the reporter on this story: Haris Anwar in Islamabad at hanwar2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peter Hirschberg at phirschberg@bloomberg.net

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