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Supreme Court of Pakistan
The bench of the Supreme Court had charged the prime minister with civil contempt, instead of judicial or criminal contempt.                                    — Photo by AFP

ISLAMABAD: As the media spotlight remains on Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and the PPP government, there is little information or conjecture available on what the other player — the judiciary — is thinking. Legal experts are also not clear on what will transpire inside courtroom number four on Thursday.

On February 13, charges for committing contempt of court were slapped on the prime minister for not pursuing the graft cases in the Swiss courts under the NRO verdict.

At that time, legal observers were of the view that the charges as framed by the seven-member bench were not as harsh as could have been expected.

The bench of the Supreme Court had charged the prime minister with civil contempt, instead of judicial or criminal contempt. The absence of the latter two, according to legal experts, meant that the provisions of Article 63(1 g or h) of the Constitution may not apply and hence the prime minister would not be disqualified from being a parliamentarian if convicted.

Chaudhry Faisal Hussain said he still believed that Article 63 (1 h) of the Constitution did not apply to the prime minister’s case after the 18th Amendment. This article, which establishes that those 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 imprisonment.

On the other hand, the maximum punishment the prime minister could get in the contempt case under contempt will be six months, he explained. Similarly, Article 63(1 g) deals with the eligibility of candidates to stand for elections and be members of the parliament; and those who are guilty of defaming or ridiculing the judiciary or compromising the integrity or the independence of the judiciary are deemed disqualified. However, the prime minister has not been accused of these misdemeanours.

“The court cannot go outside the charge it framed against the prime minister,” he explained. But as the contempt proceedings proceeded, one of the members of the bench, Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, provided a peep into the minds of the judges when he observed that the court would not only determine the past conduct of the prime minister (of not writing the letter) but also his present as well as future demeanour.

This comment was interpreted as a reference to the statements being made by Prime Minister Gilani.

He and other PPP leaders upped the ante by giving harsh public statements. This was especially true of a public rally at Mailsi (South Punjab) where he stated that he would opt for contempt (which he pointed out entailed a sentence of six months) rather than violating the Constitution the punishment for which is death under Article 6.

This is why some legal experts are of the opinion that there is little chance or space for the judges to let off the prime minister lightly.

“I believe Thursday’s judgment will explain in clear terms what will become of him,” Justice (retd) Tariq Mehmood said while talking to Dawn.

He was of the opinion that even in the case of a light punishment such as a sentence till the rising of the court (in which the punishment ends when the judges leave the courtroom), the prime minister will stand convicted and eventually disqualified.

“The prime minister himself had accepted that if convicted, he would not be a prime minister,” Mr Mehmood added. He was of the opinion that the prime minister would be under pressure to resign if convicted, however light the sentence.

Advocate Chaudhry Ramzan was of the view that defiance of the court’s order was a bigger offence and this was why the prime minister had sealed his fate, by not writing the letter.

But he felt that the exit strategy would be the option of appeal.

The prime minister still has the option to appeal against the conviction under Section 19 of the Contempt of Court Ordinance 2003.

However, a senior lawyer, who did not want to be named, was of the view that the court, despite having faced provocation at the hands of the PPP, would try to find a middle way that would allow the SC to maintain its dignity as well as not contribute to a crisis that is building up. He added that the government as well as the judiciary are under intense pressure.

He was of the opinion that such a middle way was for the court to announce the sentence but immediately suspend it for a month or so, giving the prime minister time to implement the NRO judgment.