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Conviction of Pakistan leader roils new democracy

Pakistan was thrown into fresh political turmoil Thursday after the prime minister was convicted of contempt of court.

Yousuf Raza Gilani received only a token punishment _ and no jail time _ by the court. But he is now under intense pressure to resign. The courts began the disqualification process for holding the judiciary up to “ridicule” _ a process that could see him thrown out of Parliament and removed from the prime minister position.

With Gilani’s ruling Pakistan Peoples Party in a fighting mood, the impasse and legal wrangles could drag on for months. The uncertainty and focus on the domestic political crisis means that other government business, including attempts to mend broken ties with Washington, will receive limited attention for now.

Gilani had refused for more than two years to follow court orders requiring his government to write to Swiss authorities to reopen dormant money-laundering cases against his boss, President Asif Ali Zardari, head of the Pakistan People’s Party, or PPP.

The PPP has been at war with the activist Supreme Court as the judges tried to hold Zardari and other party members accountable for past and present corruption cases and for allegations of graft that now encompass Gilani and members of his family.

Democracy remains fragile in Pakistan, which has been ruled for more than half its history by the military. The PPP believes that it is the victim of an anti-democratic conspiracy by the combined forces of the judiciary and the army. While that assessment is undeniable, many independent critics of the government believe that it is acting under the guise of fighting for democracy to cover up its corruption and misrule, with the administration marked by scandal after scandal.

Opposition parties demanded Thursday that Gilani quit and fresh elections be called. The opposition could come out onto the streets in support of the courts.

“We cannot consider him (Gilani) prime minister after today’s verdict,” said opposition leader Nawaz Sharif.

So far the coalition government led by the PPP is holding together, but there are no guarantees that will remain the case. The PPP has always used victimhood to rally its base, and it will use the current crisis to play the role of the wronged party. The party’s founder, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was removed as prime minister by the military in 1977 and hanged by the courts two years later.

Gilani’s own hero status within the party has been cemented by his refusing to bow to the courts. Elections are scheduled to be called by February 2013 anyway, if the government manages to limp on.

Under the Obama administration, the U.S. believes that its interests are best served by a democratic government in Pakistan, after a military regime in Islamabad during the George W. Bush years seemed to have played a “double game,” working both for and against U.S. interests.

The PPP is regarded as pro-American, while the military, which has the decisive say in foreign relations, as well as the main opposition parties, are much more critical of the United States’ policy in the region.

The judges clearly indicated they thought Gilani must be removed from Parliament, which would mean he could not be prime minister. But in a confusing verdict, the judges seemed to recognize that they did not have the power to do so.

The issue is now set to go before the speaker of the Parliament and the Election Commission for processing under a four-month disqualification procedure laid down in the constitution, though many lawyers insisted that Gilani stood immediately disbarred. The speaker of Parliament belongs to the PPP, adding a crucial roadblock to disqualification.

The court said that it found Gilani guilty for “willful flouting, disregard and disobedience of this court’s direction.” Going further than Gilani’s legal team expected, the judges pointed ominously to a constitutional provision that requires members of Parliament to be disbarred for “ridiculing” the courts _ a point that will figure in the appeal that will now follow.

“The verdict, in part, is beyond the scope of the indictment,” Aitzaz Ahsan, Gilani’s lawyer, told a hastily arranged news conference. “The prime minister was never indicted for allegedly scandalizing or defaming the court.”

Adding to the drama of the occasion, Gilani had walked the short distance from his official residence to the court, accompanied by family and colleagues. He waved and smiled and was showered with rose petals by supporters.

Under the Pakistani constitution, the prime minister runs the government, while the president is a more senior but symbolic position. However, this administration is controlled by President Zardari, as he is the head of the ruling party.

The soft-spoken Gilani started out as a popular prime minister, but his defense of the widely reviled Zardari, as well as allegations of corruption made against him and two of his sons, have turned him into a controversial figure

Separately, Marc Grossman, U.S. special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, arrived in Islamabad on Thursday and held talks with the Foreign Ministry and the powerful army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. It was the highest level U.S. visit since the accidental killing of Pakistani soldiers by U.S. aircraft close to the Afghan border in November froze relations. Supplies passing through Pakistan to American and other NATO soldiers in land-locked Afghanistan have remained suspended ever since.