ISLAMABAD: Dressed in a dark suit, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani returned to the Supreme Court on a grey Monday morning so that charges of contempt of court could be framed against him.
Astride his white vehicle and flanked by his democratic credentials in the shape of Asfandyar Wali Khan and Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, he entered the courtroom No 4 and pleaded not guilty after the charges had been framed.
Security was tight and the court premises were overrun by lawyers, journalists and PPP politicians. The proceedings, however, were short and were over in minutes. The order issued by a seven-judge SC bench was also short.
“Have you heard and understood the charge?” Justice Nasirul Mulk, who is heading the bench, asked the prime minister.
The prime minister uttered “Yes”.
“Do you plead guilty,” Justice Mulk asked.
“No,” the prime minister replied firmly.
“Do you have any defence to make?” the judge asked.
“I will give it in writing,” the prime minister answered.
In fact, most of the time was spent on fixing the next date as the prime minister’s counsel, Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan, claimed he was a busy man and had a number of commitments that required him to travel abroad.
Eventually the next date was set for Feb 22 when Attorney General Maulvi Anwarul Haq will exhibit evidence and provide a list of witnesses in the absence of Ahsan. The prime minister has been exempted from personal appearance at the next hearing.
As Gilani left the court premises, the charges were dissected and interpreted as legal experts began to foretell what the future may hold for him.
And it appeared that the future for the prime minister may not be as gloomy as had been predicted by many. In fact, one legal mind was of the opinion that Monday’s indictment was not as harsh as could have been expected.
“Going through the language of the charge framed against the prime minister, I believe the prime minister cannot be disqualified,” said Advocate Chaudhry Faisal Hussain while talking Dawn.
“Prime facie, it appears as if the court has charged the prime minister with civil contempt instead of judicial or criminal contempt. This means that provisions of Article 63(1 g or h) of the Constitution do not apply to this particular case,” he explained.
Article 63(1 g) deals with the eligibility of candidates to stand for elections and be members of parliament; and those who are guilty of defaming or ridiculing the judiciary or compromising the integrity or independence of the judiciary are deemed disqualified.
In fact, the reason political pundits had been predicting that the prime minister would be disqualified was because of the court’s Dec 2011 order in which it had given six options (to deal with the refusal by the government to write a letter to the Swiss authorities) and said that if convicted of contempt, there was a possibility of disqualification.
However, in Monday’s order the bench did not refer to this article.
Advocate Hussain also pointed out that what further helped the prime minister was the fact that the 18th Amendment had amended Article 63 (1 h). The article, which says people who serve a prison sentence are disqualified from being a member of parliament, now applies only to those who have served more than two years of imprisonment.
But the maximum punishment the prime minister could get in the contempt case under Monday’s charge would be six months, he explained.
Hussain’s opinion was to an extent endorsed by Justice (retd) Tariq Mehmood. “Apparently the prime minister is safe as he is facing civil contempt for disobeying court directions. He has not been charged with ridiculing the judiciary,” he said.
In addition, legal experts also pointed out that even if the prime minister was convicted he would only lose his position in parliament if the Speaker of the National Assembly so decided. “The speaker is the ultimate arbiter who can send or choose not to send the reference to the chief election commissioner for final disqualification,” Mehmood said.
Punjab Governor Sardar Latif Khosa, a former attorney general, was of the opinion that the proceedings against the prime minister could be discharged as they were in 1998 against then prime minister Nawaz Sharif.
The legal experts felt that the case would be heard quickly.
Advocate Ahmed Raza Qasuri said the court would not keep the matter pending for long because uncertainty could affect the economy.
Besides, he added, no foreign power would enter into negotiations with the prime minister facing conviction.
THE CHARGE: “That you, Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, have wilfully flouted, disregarded and disobeyed the direction given by this court in Para 178 in the case of Dr Mobashir Hassan versus Federation of Pakistan (NRO judgment) to revive the request by the government of Pakistan for mutual legal assistance and status of civil party and the claims lodged to the allegedly laundered moneys lying in foreign countries, including Switzerland, which were unauthorisedly withdrawn by communication by Malik Muhammad Qayyum, former Attorney General for Pakistan, to the concerned authorities, which direction you were legally bound to obey and thereby committed contempt of court within the meanings of Article 204(2) of the Constitution read with Section 3 of the Contempt of Court Ordinance (Ordinance V of 2003), punishable under Section 5 of the Ordinance and within the cognizance of this court.
“We hereby direct that you be tried by this court on the above said charge,” the order said.