ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's Supreme Court convicted the prime minister of contempt on Thursday but gave him only a symbolic few minutes of detention inside the court, leaving the premier in power but weakened and facing fresh calls to resign.
The ruling against Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani sharpened political uncertainty and tensions between the government and the court that have effectively crippled an administration struggling to tackle enormous economic and security challenges.
The court had the power to sentence the prime minister to prison and order his immediate dismissal from office. It chose not to, delivering instead a symbolic punishment but one that could be used as the basis to push Gilani from power in the months to come.
The parliamentary speaker and election commission must now decide whether the conviction is reason to dismiss Gilani as a lawmaker, and hence as prime minister.
This could take up to four months and be contested legally every step of the way, meaning Gilani could remain prime minister until elections this year or early next. That may be taken as an achievement in itself in a country with a history of repeated coups and judicial machinations against elected governments.
Gilani's resignation was out of the question, said Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira. "The prime minister has not been convicted of any moral crime. No one needs to give us a lesson in morality."
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 politicized. Corruption charges have routinely been used to target those in power, or seeking to return.
The prime minister arrived at the court house flanked by government ministers and in a shower of rose petals tossed by supporters.
The ruling said he was guilty of contempt but would serve a sentence only "until the rising of the court," or by the time the judges left the chamber. That happened about three minutes after the verdict was handed down.
Thursday's verdict was the culmination of a process that began in a Supreme Court decision in 2009 ordering the government to ask authorities in Switzerland to reopen a long dormant corruption probe against President Asif Ali Zardari dating back to the 1990s. Gilani refused, saying the president had immunity from prosecution, and in January the court ordered contempt proceedings against him.
Outside the court, government loyalists fumed at Thursday's ruling.
"With utmost respect, I have to say this court order is absolutely illegal," said Attorney General Arfan Qadir.
The turmoil could complicate U.S. hopes of renegotiating its stalled relationship with Pakistan. Washington wants supply lines to NATO and US troops reopened after Islamabad shut them in November in a protest against a deadly U.S air raid on its troops. Pakistan wants an end to drone strikes, more money for hosting the supply routes and an apology for the border incident.
Pakistan's opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, said his party thinks Gilani should go. "He would be causing insult to the Parliament by continuing," he said "He should resign to avoid any further crisis."
Political analysts said members of Gilani's party and his coalition partners may well also pressure him to step down, figuring it's time to ditch a leader who has been convicted in a court of law. The ruling Pakistan's Peoples Party should have the numbers in parliament to elect a replacement, but it may not be smooth.
"It's a political decision now," said Cyril Almeida, a political commentator. "Is the damage they sustain having Gilani continue in office less than the benefits of having a martyr at the helm?"
In the world of Pakistani politics, the conviction against Gilani could become an advantage to his and Zardari's Pakistan's Peoples Party. It could portray the case against Gilani as the latest in a long line of unjust decisions by the courts and the army and use it to fire up the party's base ahead of elections.
The graft case in the Swiss court involves millions of dollars in kickbacks Zardari 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 court has repeatedly ordered the government to send a letter to Swiss authorities asking the case be reopened.
It is far from clear whether Swiss authorities would pay any attention to such a letter. A Swiss prosecutor said last year that Zardari had immunity, and there are also statute of limitations issues. The refusal by the government to send the "Swiss letter" is in large part political. It doesn't want to be seen initiating a graft case against Zardari, especially one that involves his ex-wife, Bhutto.
Government loyalists have acccused the chief of the Supreme Court of having a feud against Zardari. Supporters of the judiciary say it is trying to uphold the law in a country where the country's politicians have engaged in massive corruption for years.