On April 26, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani was “found guilty of and convicted for contempt of court” till the rising of the court by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. As it turned out, the ‘imprisonment’ lasted only for 30 seconds but history was made in that short period: for the first time in Pakistan’s history, a sitting prime minister has been convicted.
The legal aspects of the Supreme Court judgement are quite complex as was evident from the various interpretations that were being dished out on our television screens. That the court mentioned Article 63(1)(g) in its short order led many to speculate about the prime minister’s disqualification as a member of parliament.
It said: “…We note that the findings and the conviction for contempt of court […] are likely to entail some serious consequences in terms of Article 63(1)(g) of the Constitution which may be treated as mitigating factors towards the sentence to be passed against him [PM Gilani].”
Article 63(1)(g), which pertains to the disqualification for membership of parliament, states: “A person shall be disqualified from being elected or chosen as, and from being, a member of the Majlis-e-Shoora (Parliament), if he has been convicted by a court of competent jurisdiction for propagating any opinion, or acting in any manner, prejudicial to the ideology of Pakistan, or the sovereignty, integrity or security of Pakistan, or morality, or the maintenance of public order, or the integrity or independence of the judiciary of Pakistan, or which defames or brings into ridicule the judiciary or the Armed Forces of Pakistan, unless a period of five years has elapsed since his release.”
One interpretation of the court’s verdict is that instead of imprisoning him for six months, which is the maximum penalty for contempt of court, the Supreme Court has handed down a lighter sentence to PM Gilani because his real ‘penalty’ will be disqualification. But the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) is not ready to take this lying down.
Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan, PM Gilani’s counsel, announced in a press conference that an appeal will be soon be filed by his client. Mr Ahsan was also of the view that the charges for which PM Gilani was convicted were never framed in the first place, i.e. ridiculing or scandalisation of the court. A legal battle will surely ensue now that the government has decided that PM Gilani does not need to resign on moral grounds. While the court’s decision to convict PM Gilani has set a bad precedent, a convicted prime minister chairing cabinet meetings and attending sessions of parliament will not go down well with the opposition parties that are already denouncing the prime minister and the PPP-led coalition government. PML-N chief Mian Nawaz Sharif has asked for PM Gilani’s resignation and wants fresh elections to be held as soon as possible.
If a political crisis is to be averted, this suggestion should not be dismissed by the government. PM Gilani’s days are now numbered one way or the other. If the PPP delays his disqualification, it will only help the unconstitutional forces to take advantage of the political vacuum — something that even Mian Nawaz Sharif alluded to after PM Gilani’s conviction.
Just a day before the court verdict, renowned journalist Mr Najam Sethi cautioned all institutions of the state, especially the political forces, about the repercussions of a confrontation between the executive and the judiciary if the government tried to resist the court’s verdict. He made it clear that it would not just hurt the political class but its impact on Pakistan’s economy would be disastrous. This is something Pakistan can ill-afford at a time when its economy is already in the doldrums.
The focus in this entire episode has been more on the ‘Swiss letter’, the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), PM Gilani’s next step, protests against the court’s verdict by PPP supporters, the PPP’s witch-hunt by the judiciary and other forces for decades, demonisation of the PPP in some sections of the media, the reaction of the opposition parties, etc. In this entire hullabaloo we are ignoring the most important factor: a possible nexus between the judiciary and the military. It may be difficult for the military to directly intervene but a judicial coup cannot be ruled out under the circumstances. Pakistan’s politicians must realise that this is not the time to play dirty politics at the cost of democracy. Let us hope that sanity prevails amongst the political class before these ‘30 seconds’ lead to a debacle that will haunt us for decades to come.
The writer is a Pakistani journalist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org