Pakistan’s top court disqualified Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani from office Tuesday in a stunning move likely to throw the country into fresh turmoil just months before widely expected general elections.
The Supreme Court announced the move after convicting Gilani on April 26 of contempt for refusing to ask Switzerland to reopen a multi-million-dollar corruption investigation into President Asif Ali Zardari in a highly politicized case.
“Yousuf Raza Gilani has become disqualified from being member of the parliament,” said Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, reading the order.
“He has also ceased to be the prime minister of Pakistan with effect from the same date (April 26) and office of the prime minister shall be deemed to be vacant accordingly.
“The Election Commission is required to issue notification of disqualification... The president is required to take necessary steps under the constitution to ensure continuation of democratic process through parliamentary system of government in the country,” he added.
Although the ruling itself is unlikely to bring down the government, it is likely to cause fresh uncertainty in a country already struggling with Islamist militancy and economic woes.
It could also hasten the date of the next general election.
Gilani, Pakistan’s first ever sitting prime minister to be convicted, has faced down widespread calls from the opposition to quit. He has said that only parliament can remove him from office.
Members of his government have accused judges of over-stepping their reach and of trying to bring down Gilani and Zardari before February 2013 ─ when the administration would become the first in Pakistan to complete a full five year term in office.
Under the constitution, anyone convicted of defaming or ridiculing the judiciary is barred from being an MP.
The matter of disqualification fell first to the speaker of parliament, Fehmida Mirza, a member of the main ruling Pakistan People’s Party, who on May 24 said conviction for contempt was not a charge that meant he should be disqualified under the constitution.
Gilani subsequently decided not to appeal his conviction in a move interpreted as an effort not to antagonize the court into disqualifying him.
But senior opposition politicians, including cricket legend Imran Khan and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, challenged the ruling.
The allegations against Zardari date back to the 1990s, when he and his late wife, former premier Benazir Bhutto, are suspected of using Swiss bank accounts to launder about $12 million allegedly paid in bribes by companies seeking customs inspection contracts.
The Swiss shelved the cases in 2008 when Zardari became president.
Gilani has always insisted Zardari has full immunity as head of state and last month said that writing to the Swiss would be a violation of the constitution.
He was briefly ─ but symbolically ─ held in the courtroom for his sentence, which ended as soon as the judges arose for the day after announcing the verdict.