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What next for Pakistan's convicted Prime Minister?

By Reza Sayah, CNN
updated 6:16 AM EDT, Fri April 27, 2012
Supporters of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) protest the verdict against Gilani.
Supporters of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) protest the verdict against Gilani.
  • Pakistan's PM found guilty of contempt for refusal to revive corruption charges against President
  • Yousuf Raza Gilani, Pakistan's longest-serving Prime Minister, was not jailed
  • Analysts believe it plunges the country into political crisis, while others think it means nothing
  • Debate raging over whether it justifies a disqualification and his removal from the post

Islamabad, Pakistan (CNN) -- Far from clarifying matters, the Pakistani Supreme Court's guilty verdict against Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has added several layers of uncertainty about the fate of Pakistan's civilian government and its longest serving prime minister.

Moments after Gilani was found guilty of contempt for his refusal to revive old corruption charges against President Asif Ali Zardari, politicians and political analysts on dozens of Pakistan's 24-hour news networks offered a dizzying array of contrasting views on what the ruling meant.

"It plunges the country into political and legal crisis," said Najam Sethi, editor of the English language political weekly, The Friday Times.

Pakistan's Gilani convicted of contempt

"In practical and legal terms it does not mean much," said Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, the head of an Islamabad based political think tank. "A lot of people were under the impression that the prime minister would be disqualified, but he is not."

Pakistan PM convicted of contempt
Pakistan PM: No objection to prison

For now, Gilani remains Pakistan's prime minister and the new debate raging here is whether his conviction justifies a disqualification and his removal from the post.

Within hours of the verdict Gilani's lawyer, Aitzaz Ahsan, held a press conference and cited Pakistan's constitution, which says a member of parliament can only be disqualified after a conviction and a prison sentence of at least two years.

The Supreme Court did not sentence Gilani to time behind bars but delivered a symbolic sentence by keeping him in custody for the duration of the hearing which lasted only several minutes.

Therefore, "there is no automatic immediate disqualification," Ahsan said. "The prime minister is not disqualified."

Gilani's eligibility to remain Pakistan's prime minister will be decided by the speaker of parliament, and possibly the election commission, in a process that could take months.

But Gilani's political enemies are already calling for him to step down and no one's screaming louder than Nawaz Sharif, a former premier who would love nothing more than to reclaim the post following next year's parliamentary elections.

"I think that after the conviction the PM should immediately step down from his post," Sharif told a reporters in a live news conference following Thursday's verdict. "This is a convicted prime minister. He has been found guilty, he has been sentenced by the Supreme Court."

Sethi said Sharif could decide to take the drastic measure of quitting parliament in protest if the prime minister refuses to resign, a move that would place the legitimacy of parliament in jeopardy and fuel a fresh political crisis.

This is a convicted Prime Minister. He has been found guilty, he has been sentenced by the Supreme Court.
Former PM Nawaz Sharif

The contempt case against Gilani stemmed from his refusal to ask Swiss authorities to reopen old corruption charges against President Zardari. The charges date back to the 1990s when Zardari allegedly laundered tens of millions of dollars while his wife, Benazir Bhutto, served as prime minister.

Mehboob said the verdict failed to answer central questions about Zardari.

"It has diverted attention from the real issue," he said. "The real issue is if our president is guilty of amassing illegitimate wealth and money laundering. We have failed to arrive at any conclusion and we're still perceived as a nation that doesn't abide by the rule of law."

Even so, Mehboob said the political drama is likely to continue, taking up precious time and resources in a country that is facing a myriad of crises including widespread poverty, a broken economy and the bloody fight against Islamist militants.

"This is just a waste of the nation's time," said businessman Abdul Rauf. "It's just very disappointing."

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