ISLAMABAD - Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was convicted of contempt of court but was spared jail time by the judge on Thursday and could now be disqualified from office.
Gilani had refused for more than two years to follow court orders, which required his government to write to the Swiss authorities to reopen money-laundering cases against his boss, President Asif Ali Zardari, head of the ruling Pakistan People's Party.
The guilty verdict threw the country into fresh political turmoil, with sporadic small street protests staged by party workers Thursday, a prelude of what lies ahead. Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif demanded that Gilani quit and new elections be called immediately. "We cannot consider him prime minister after today's verdict, Sharif said.
The uncertainty and focus on the domestic political crisis means that other government business, including the attempts to mend broken ties with Washington, will receive limited attention for now.
The judges clearly indicated they thought Gilani must be removed from parliament, which would mean he could not be prime minister, but, in a confusing verdict, they seemed to recognize that they did not have the power to do so.
The issue now appears set to go before the speaker of the parliament and the Election Commission, under a four-month disqualification procedure laid out in the constitution, though many lawyers insisted that Gilani was immediately disbarred. The conviction could mean that Gilani is not eligible to stand in the next election. The parliament speaker belongs to PPP, adding a further roadblock to disqualification.
The court said it found Gilani guilty of "willful flouting, disregard and disobedience of this court's direction." Going further than Gilani's legal team expected, the judges pointed ominously to a constitutional provision that requires members of parliament to be disbarred for "ridiculing" the courts - a point that will figure in the appeal that will now follow.
"The verdict, in part, is beyond the scope of the indictment," Aitzaz Ahsan, Gilani's lawyer, told a hastily arranged news conference. "The prime minister was never indicted for allegedly scandalizing or defaming the court."
Adding to the drama of the occasion, Gilani had walked the short distance from his residence to the court, accompanied by family and colleagues, where he waved and smiled, and was showered with rose petals by supporters.
Under the Pakistani constitution, the prime minister runs the government, while the president is a more senior but symbolic position. However, this administration is controlled by President Zardari, as he is the head of the ruling party.
The soft-spoken Gilani started out as a popular prime minister but his defense of the widely reviled Zardari, as well as allegations of corruption made against him and two of his sons, have turned him into a controversial figure. The PPP is regarded as pro-American, while the military, which has the decisive say in foreign relations, as well as the main opposition parties, are much more critical of the United States' policy in the region.
In a separate development, Marc Grossman, the U.S. special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan arrived in Islamabad on Thursday and held talks with the Foreign Ministry and the army chief. It was the highest-level U.S. visit since the accidental killing in November of Pakistani soldiers by U.S. aircraft, close to the Afghan border, froze relations.