By: Farhan Bokhari
(CBS News) ISLAMABAD – Pakistan’s pro-U.S. ruling coalition was thrown in turmoil Thursday after Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was convicted on a contempt-of-court charge by the country’s Supreme Court.
Gilani was given a symbolic jail term lasting for less than a minute, but the verdict made it possible for him to lose his job as prime minister, according to analysts and legal experts.
“For reasons to be recorded later, the prime minister is found guilty of contempt for willfully flouting the direction of the Supreme Court,” said Supreme Court Justice Nasir-ul-Mulk in announcing the verdict. The judge ordered Gilani to serve time “till rising of the court” – a term which means for the duration of the brief court hearing.
Western diplomats however warned that depending on the direction of future political events, fresh turmoil in Pakistan could further strain the country’s already troubled relations with the United States.
“As Pakistan’s political temperature rises, there are new dangers for Pakistan’s relations with the U.S.,” a senior western diplomat in Islamabad told CBS News after Thursday’s verdict on condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to speak to journalists. “As turmoil grows in Pakistan, it will be increasingly difficult for the government to be seen becoming more friendly towards the U.S.”
For the moment, the most vital matter between the two countries remains the future of a supply line through Pakistan for U.S.-led western troops in Afghanistan. The supply route was shut down by Pakistan in November after 26 of its soldiers were killed in a western helicopter attack from Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s parliament has debated the issue of the supply line and recommended a partial lifting of the ban, which will allow the flow of non-weapon supplies such as food and fuel. But the parliament has also demanded that the United States cease pilotless drone strikes carried out by the CIA, which regularly target suspected militant sanctuaries in Pakistan’s region along the Afghan border.
If Gilani is ousted as prime minister and Pakistan is surrounded by fresh political turmoil, President Asif Ali Zardari may be forced to call elections well ahead of the due date of next March.
“Early elections are a very real possibility because of this turmoil,” a second western diplomat told CBS News on condition of anonymity.
On Thursday, outside the Supreme Court building along Islamabad’s Constitution Avenue and less than a five minute’s drive from the diplomatic quarters that houses the U.S. Embassy, the ruling Pakistan People’s Party sought to turn the verdict to its political advantage.
“These charges were malafide; they were meant to damage our democracy,” PPP activist Shehla Malik said in an interview.
Malik, a woman in her twenties who was standing among a group of PPP activists and had travelled for three hours before the announcement, said, “We reject the court’s verdict. The prime minister is innocent.”
Analysts said the PPP, which has become increasingly unpopular across Pakistan and has overseen rising corruption and worsening economic prospects since its tenure began in 2008, will try to take political advantage out of the court’s verdict.
“The party will probably try to politicize the matter on the streets of Pakistan,” said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a widely respected political commentator who spoke to CBS News after the verdict was announced. “The outcome of the case in the court will now have to be seen on how it’s played out on the streets.”