Shortly after Yousuf Raza Gilani became the first Pakistan Prime Minister to be indicted by the Supreme Court this morning, he chaired a meeting of coaltion partners in his government; his partners have reportedly reposed full faith in Mr Gilani's leadership.
Mr Gilani has been indicted for contempt of court for refusing to act on the Supreme Court's orders to reopen graft cases against the President, Asif Ali Zardari. A two-page chargesheet against the PM, signed by all seven judges of the bench, was read out in court on Monday morning. Mr Gilani, who was present, has the opportunity to fight the charges against him. The court has posted the next hearing on February 22; Mr Gilani has till February 27 to file documents, which will then be recorded on February 28. After that, a date will be set for trial.
In court today, Mr Gilani said he had read and understood the indictment order. He then pleaded not guilty, before the court adjourned proceedings to ten days later after instructing Attorney General Maulvi Anwarul Haq to prosecute the case. Mr Gilani has been exempted from personally appearing at the next court hearing.
If Mr Gilani is convicted, he could be imprisoned for six months and face possible removal from office after being disqualified from holding public office for five years. The Prime Minister said in an interview to Al Jazeera TV on Saturday that if convicted, he would resign. However, legal experts point out that the President has the power to pardon him if he is convicted.
The government is hanging by a thread, but Mr Gilani and his ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) have clearly decided to battle this out. Last week, Mr Gilani refused the opportunity to make peace with the Supreme Court by writing to Swiss authorities to reopen graft cases against Mr Zardari. Analysts say the PPP will look to somehow stretch matters till the first week of March when elections to the senate or upper house will be held. The ruling party reportedly calculates that it can win the senate elections and then call for early general elections. Senate elections will be held on March 2.
Soon after court proceedings the PPP met its coalition partners in a high-level huddle today to deliberate on future plans of actions; the partners endorsed Mr Gilani's leadership. There has been talk of the names of possible replacements being discussed if Mr Gilani has to step down. PPP spokesman Qamar Zaman said today, "The PM of Pakistan has been charged...it's a sad day. We believe that the PM will put his stance in the best possible way."
The PPP and its allies discussed the current political situation and agreed to work together for "continuation of the political and democratic process in the country", said a statement from the premier's office.
"They further resolved to continue to work for the sustenance and strengthening of the democratic dispensation in the country," the statement said.
This morning, Mr Gilani, 59, drove his white SUV to court. This time his motorcade stopped on the road outside, and Mr Gilani, dressed in a dark suit and white shirt, walked into the court smiling and waving much as he had done on his last appearance on January 19. He then walked into court room number 4 to appear before a seven-member bench headed by Justice Nasir ul Mulk. Interior Minister Rahman Malik was with him. Other ministers had arrived at court earlier.
On Friday, Pakistan's top court, headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, dealt a major blow to Mr Gilani by rejecting his appeal against framing of contempt charges over his failure to act on its repeated orders to revive cases of alleged money laundering against Asif Ali Zardari in Switzerland. Mr Gilani has said the government cannot reopen the cases against the President because he enjoys complete immunity in Pakistan and abroad.
Refusing to buy his arguments, the court told Mr Gilani that he had no option but to write to Swiss authorities to revive graft cases against Mr Zardari as no one was above the law.
S M Zafar, a noted lawyer and parliamentarian, has been quoted by PTI as saying that if Mr Gilani is convicted and if he is granted a presidential pardon, it would apply only to the punishment handed down by the court while the conviction would remain on record. Therefore, the premier could be disqualified despite the pardon, he observed.
The top court has been pressuring the government to reopen the cases since December 2009, when it struck down the National Reconciliation Ordinance, a graft amnesty issued by former military ruler Pervez Musharraf that benefited Mr Zardari and over 8,000 others.
The PPP has been reluctant to act because top leaders believe any action on the cases in Switzerland could give the Supreme Court an opportunity to interpret the constitutional provision related to presidential immunity.
"Once the Swiss cases are reopened, then the court could say it wants to review the President's immunity. And all this will pave the way to launch a 'get Zardari' movement on legal grounds," a PPP leader, who did not want to be named, told PTI.
At the same time, the PPP's top leadership has considered the possibility that Mr Gilani may have to be replaced if the top court acts against him. Religious Affairs Minister Khursheed Shah and Defence Minister Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar have emerged as possible contenders for the premier's slot if Mr Gilani is disqualified, insiders said.
There is a section in the PPP which believes that any action taken by the Supreme Court against Mr Gilani could boost the party's standing, especially in the premiers home province of Punjab, at a time when its fortunes are at a low.
"People are already saying that the courts have never acted against military dictators and those who violated the Constitution. Imagine what will happen if the court decides to act against the Prime Minister who freed the judges who were detained by Pervez Musharraf," said another PPP leader, who too did not want to be named.
"We are fully convinced that Gilani's sacrifice will give a boost to the party and help lay a strong launch pad for the next election," a presidential aide said.