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Pakistan PM Yusuf Raza Gilani found guilty of contempt by Supreme Court

Pakistan's Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani waves to supporters upon arrival at the Supreme Court for a hearing in a contempt-of-court of notice, in Islamabad, Thursday.
Pakistan's Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani waves to supporters upon arrival at the Supreme Court for a hearing in a contempt-of-court of notice, in Islamabad, Thursday./

ISLAMABAD -- Pakistan's Supreme Court on Thursday found Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani guilty of contempt of court for refusing to reopen corruption cases against the president, but gave him only a symbolic sentence of a few minutes' detention in the courtroom.

Gilani smiled when the verdict was read out in a packed courthouse. He had refused to abide by a court order to write a letter to Swiss authorities to reopen a $60-million money-laundering case against President Asif Ali Zardari.

It was unclear if the token sentence would defuse political uncertainty in Pakistan, where the president and prime minister have jousted with the military and judiciary. Despite the light sentence, Gilani could still face dismissal from office in the weeks, or more likely, months to come.

"For reasons to be recorded later, the prime minister is found guilty of contempt for wilfully flouting the direction of the Supreme Court," said Justice Nasir-ul-Mulk.

The conviction means Gilani is the first serving prime minister in Pakistan's history to be convicted by a court, but his detention lasted just a few minutes until the session was adjourned. He could have faced up to six months in jail and the loss of office.

"I think what they've done is taken it from the legal arena and chucked it into the political arena," said Cyril Almeida, a prominent columnist for the Dawn daily newspaper.

He said opposition members of parliament now might move to expel Gilani from office.

"There will be massive pressure from the opposition, the media, from civil society, saying 'He's been convicted for flouting the letter of the law and he should go home,'" Almeida said. "There will be a lot of pressure for him to resign."

Tight security
A throng of supporters surrounded Gilani as he walked into the court in Islamabad, showering him with rose petals. Security was tight, with about 1,000 police officers standing by in riot gear and helicopters circling the Supreme Court building.

Gilani's lawyers had said before the verdict that he would not automatically be disqualified from office if convicted, and at any rate he would be able to appeal against the verdict.

"This is a historic day. The court has declared a lawmaker a lawbreaker. This is weakening democracy in Pakistan," said Firdous Ashiq Awan, former information minister.

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The case stems from what many observers say is a political battle between the government and the military, which has held the whip hand in Pakistan's political arena for most of the country's 64 years of independence. Many say the army is using the court to keep the government on the back foot.

The source of the current conflict is a graft case against Zardari that involves kickbacks he and his late wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, allegedly received from Swiss companies when Bhutto was in power in the 1990s. They were found guilty in absentia in a Swiss court in 2003.

Zardari appealed, but Swiss prosecutors ended up dropping the case in 2008 after the Pakistani government approved an ordinance giving the president and others immunity from old corruption cases that many agreed were politically motivated.

The Pakistani Supreme Court ruled the ordinance unconstitutional in 2009 and ordered the government to write a letter to Swiss authorities requesting they reopen the case against Zardari. Gilani has refused, saying the Pakistani constitution grants the president immunity from criminal prosecution while in office.

NBC News' Fakhar ur Rehman, Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.