Islamabad: Pakistan's cabinet today decided that Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, found guilty of contempt by the Supreme Court this morning, does not need to resign on moral grounds because he has not been convicted for a criminal offense.
The Pakistan Supreme Court has held Mr Gilani guilty of contempt for refusing to reopen an old corruption case against President Asif Ali Zardari. The court convicted him till the rising of the court, which means that the PM was not arrested or jailed; in a symbolic sentence that lasted about 30 seconds, he had to remain in court as the seven judges of the bench delivered judgement, rose and left the court. (Read court order)
Opposition leaders Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan have demanded that Mr Gilani step down immediately. "If the Prime Minister will not obey the law, why will anyone else in the country?' asked Tehrik-e-Insaaf chief Imran Khan.
The Pakistan cabinet met this afternoon to say he does not need to resign.
The court has convicted Mr Gilani for violating Article 63 1 (G) of the Pakistani constitution, which provides for disqualification from membership of the country's Parliament. For that to happen a party would have to move for his disqualification and the case would go to the Parliament Speaker, who then has a month to decide. If he chooses to proceed, the case would go to the Election Commission, which has three months to decide.
So, with the cabinet making clear that the PM will not resign, Mr Gilani has at least four more months in the PM's post. The PM's lawyer has said he will appeal the verdict, further delaying any action that could see Mr Gilani lose his job, though the process of disqualification and that of appeal can go on simultaneously. Elections are scheduled for later this year or early next, meaning it is quite possible the government could see out its term with Mr Gilani still in charge.
The Prime Minister was smiling when he arrived at court this morning flanked by many supporters. He held that smile when the verdict was read out in a packed court house. His entire cabinet was present in a show of strength and support.
Mr Gilani is the longest-serving Prime Minister in the history of Pakistan, where civilian governments have repeatedly been toppled by the country's powerful military, often with the support of the Supreme Court, which critics allege is heavily politicized. Corruption charges have routinely been used to target those in power, or seeking to return.
The source of the current conflict is a graft case against President Asif Ali Zardari that involves kickbacks he and his late wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, allegedly received from Swiss companies when Ms Bhutto was in power in the 1990s. They were found guilty in absentia in a Swiss court in 2003.
Mr Zardari appealed, but Swiss prosecutors ended up dropping the case in 2008 after the Pakistani government under General Pervez Musharraf approved the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), which gave the Pakistan President and others immunity from old corruption cases that many agreed were politically motivated.
In December 2009, the Supreme Court ruled the ordinance unconstitutional and ordered the government to write a letter to Swiss authorities requesting they reopen the case against Zardari.
Mr Gilani has been steadfast in his refusal to re-open those cases against his President maintaining that the latter enjoys immunity under the NRO. Mr Gilani has stuck to his stand that the old charges against Mr Zardari are politically motivated and is expected to continue to say no to asking the Swiss to reopen these old cases. He has appeared in the top court twice before this year, clear that he would fight the case.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister said he was satisfied with his counsel Aitzaz Ahsan's inputs in the proceedings of the case and those of Attorney General Irfan Qadir. "We respect the court and we will go. We should not react; whoever wants to accompany me during the hearing is most welcome."