Pakistan's Prime Minister Found Guilty Of Contempt
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Pakistan faces even more political uncertainty. The country's supreme court today found the prime minister guilty of contempt of court. Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani had resisted demands by the court that he press authorities in Switzerland to pursue money laundering charges there against his boss, the president of Pakistan. NPR's Julie McCarthy has been following this story. She was at the court in Islamabad.
JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: Convicting the prime minister of the country - pretty significant step.
MCCARTHY: Yes, it was. And it was one of the fastest verdicts I've ever seen. Seven justices of the supreme court filed in, 9:35 in the morning, and wasted no time. The chief of that bench ordered the attorney for the prime minister to rise, and he announced Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani is guilty for contempt of court for willfully disregarding and disobeying the court's direction, and that his failure to comply with court orders is, quote, "substantially detrimental to the administration of justice and" - this is important - "tends to bring the court of Pakistan into ridicule." Very serious charges here. And a conviction.
And a conviction. Want to make sure that I understand the underlying case here. There are questions about money in Swiss bank accounts connected to the president of Pakistan and the court was ordering the prime minister to investigate this? This is what they say he refused to do?
That's exactly right. So I mean, the underlying question here is, is this all about a political cover up? Is a shield being held up for the president not to face justice? That is the underlying question. The court is interested in kicking open, reviving a case of corruption against President Asif Ali Zardari long before he was president.
And you're right - at stake, Swiss bank accounts worth some $60 million of ill-gotten gains, allegedly during the time of Zardari's wife, the late Benazir Bhutto. She was prime minister when this all went down. And the court is pressing to get the money back. It says it belongs to the people of Pakistan.
And the bench decided that the prime minister was guilty of contempt by virtue of his failure to pursue those graft cases in Switzerland against his boss. In short, the court wants the money repatriated.
INSKEEP: So could the prime minister of Pakistan go to jail?
MCCARTHY: Well, no, he's not going to jail. The prime minister, who was dressed in this formal black national dress called a Sherwani, he was in court. And the court ruled that he would remain in custody till his release upon the rising of the court for the day. In other words, he was convicted and in custody for about a minute.
INSKEEP: Until they stood up and left.
MCCARTHY: Until - yes, until the court left. But one minute long conviction is still a conviction. And Yusuf Raza Gilani goes down as the first prime minister to ever be convicted before a Pakistani court. And that's the significance of the day. The court signaled that no one, including the highest official of the land, is above the law.
INSKEEP: Well, if the rule of law is the essential point here, let's ask about a point of law. Can a man who's been convicted of a crime continue to serve as prime minister?
MCCARTHY: Interesting question. And this verdict is ambiguous on that. One school says the court has by virtue of saying he's ridiculed it disqualified himself. The constitution says if you defame the judiciary, you're out. You're disqualified from being a member of parliament. And if you're not a member of parliament, you can't be prime minister.
Another school says, no, court didn't go that far. It didn't reach disqualification. That will be the duty of the parliament. The parliament meets later today to discuss all of this as this big news filters through and they digest it. But make no mistake. This is a significant ruling that has shaken the halls of power here.
INSKEEP: Julie, thanks very much.
MCCARTHY: Thank you.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Julie McCarthy. She's in Islamabad, where the prime minister of Pakistan has been found guilty of contempt of court by the country's supreme court. And you hear Julie right here on MORNING EDITION, where we continue to cover that story as it develops. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.