Islamabad: The Supreme Court on Thursday convicted Pakistan`s Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani for contempt for refusing to reopen an old corruption case against the country`s President Asif Ali Zardari.
Gilani was sentenced until the rising of the court.
The sentence lasted for barely 30 seconds, a reprieve for the 56-year-old Prime Minister who could have been jailed for six months.
Gilani smiled when the verdict was read out in a packed court house.
"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 Nasirul Mulk, who headed the seven-judge bench of the court.
The court also made a reference to Article 63(1g) of the Constitution, which lists the grounds for disqualifications of a convicted parliamentarian, but did not invoke it.
"We note that our findings and the conviction for the contempt of court recorded are likely to entail some serious consequences in terms of Article 63(1g) of the Constitution," the bench said in a short order.
Experts said this left the door open for the initiation of the process for the disqualification of 56-year-old Gilani, Pakistan`s longest serving Prime Minister.
However, the Speaker of the National Assembly or lower house of Parliament will have 30 days to decide on such a move and the Election Commission a further 90 days effectively meaning that the Premier can remain in office for four more months.
The entire proceedings in the courtroom number 4 lasted less than 10 minutes. The judges left the court immediately after announcing the verdict, effectively ending Gilani`s sentence.
Emerging from the heavily-guarded court, Gilani told the media: "We had sought justice. The decision was not appropriate".
A visibly dejected Prime Minister, accompanied by his sons, shook hands with his team and members of the federal cabinet after hearing the verdict.
Attorney General Irfan Qadir described the verdict as "unconstitutional and unlawful".
Opposition leaders, including PML(N) chief Nawaz Sharif and Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf chief Imran Khan, called on Gilani to resign following his conviction."In light of the verdict, I think Prime Minister Gilani should resign immediately rather than prolong the issue," Sharif said.
The PML(N) would no longer accept Gilani as the Premier and the government was "on a wrong wicket" while the Supreme Court is "on high moral ground and people should back the truth", Sharif said.
He also demanded the holding of fresh elections and the installation of a caretaker government.
Earlier in the morning, Gilani drove in a small motorcade to the Supreme Court complex, where members of his council of ministers were waiting for him.
The Premier walked towards the building flanked by his son Abdul Qadeer Gilani and Interior Minister Rehman Malik as his supporters showered rose petals on him.
Gilani, clad in a black sherwani, stopped at the door of the building and waved to his supporters before going inside.
After the judges entered, Gilani walked up to a rostrum at the centre of the courtroom with Law Minister Farooq Naek and his lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan.
Gilani had been facing the prospect of a prison term of up to six months but his actual sentence lasted 30 seconds.
The Supreme Court has been pushing the government to reopen cases of money laundering against President Zardari in Switzerland since December 2009, when it struck down a graft amnesty issued by former military ruler Pervez Musharraf.
The government has refused to act, saying the President enjoys immunity in Pakistan and abroad.
The bench had on Tuesday reserved its judgment in the contempt case against Gilani for failing to act on the court`s directives to reopen corruption cases against Zardari. He has argued that the President enjoys immunity under the Pakistani Constitution.
Accused of graft, Zardari had been granted amnesty under the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) in 2007 by then president Pervez Musharraf to facilitate his return home and, primarily that of his wife, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.
The NRO that granted immunity to politicians and bureaucrats in corruption cases was struck down as void in 2009.
The apex court warned the government of action if its ruling on the NRO was not implemented by January 10, 2012. It also ordered the government to write a letter to the Swiss authorities to reopen cases against Zardari.
On January 16, the court issued Gilani a contempt notice for not acting against Zardari.
Even after Gilani was formally charged with contempt of court on February 13, the PM insisted that he would rather be jailed than approach the Swiss authorities to reopen the cases against the President.
The government put in place strict security arrangements for Gilani’s third appearance in the Supreme Court for the contempt case.
Helicopters mounted aerial surveillance while over 2,000 security personnel were deployed in the `Red Zone` where the apex court and Parliament is located.
Hours after the court announced its verdict, angry workers of the ruling Pakistan People`s Party staged protests at some places in Punjab, including Gilani`s hometown of Multan.
PPP leader and Federal Minister Firdous Ashiq Awan said: "The court has declared a lawmaker a lawbreaker. This is weakening democracy in Pakistan".
State-run Radio Pakistan reported that President Asif Ali Zardari, who is also the chief of the PPP, had convened a special meeting of the ruling party and its allies.
The meeting will discuss a strategy following the verdict of the Supreme Court, the report said.
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 politicised. Corruption charges have routinely been used to target those in power, or seeking to return.
(With Agencies’ inputs)