Pakistan's prime minister was Thursday convicted for refusing to reopen a corruption investigation against the president, in a case that could see him thrown out of office.
ISLAMABAD- The Supreme Court found Yousuf Raza Gilani guilty of contempt over his refusal to obey an order to write to the authorities in Switzerland to ask them to re-open corruption cases against his ally President Asif Ali Zardari.
Gilani had faced a maximum sentence of six months in prison, but the court ordered him to be "imprisoned" until the hearing adjourned and he emerged shortly afterwards smiling and waving to supporters.
The question now is whether Gilani will be disqualified from office, which would add to political instability in a country already troubled by Al-Qaeda and Taliban violence.
Under Pakistan's constitution anyone convicted of defaming or ridiculing the judiciary is barred from being an MP, but legal experts say the process to disqualify Gilani could be a lengthy one, involving the parliamentary speaker and the Election Commission.
Attorney General Irfan Qadir said that for now Gilani remains prime minister, but this may change if the case goes before the speaker -- who is a member of Gilani's Pakistan People's Party (PPP).
"If she thinks that the judgment is valid, she will forward it to the Election Commission, and she will act otherwise if she thinks that the judgment is invalid," Qadir said.
Even if Gilani loses his seat it will not mean the end of the PPP's rule, as it will be able to choose another lawmaker to replace him as PM.
In giving the verdict, Justice Nasir ul Mulk, the head of the seven-judge Supreme Court bench, said Gilani's offence "tends to bring this court and the judiciary of the country into ridicule".
The summary judgment did not specifically say whether Gilani should be disqualified, but Mulk said the conviction was "likely to entail serious consequences" for him under the section of the constitution covering the removal of MPs, and this was a mitigating factor in sentencing.
"He is therefore punished under section five of contempt of court ordinance with imprisonment till rising of the court," the judge said.
The case has been highly politically charged, with members of the government accusing judges of over-stepping their reach and of trying to bring down the prime minister and president, a year before the administration would become the first in Pakistan to complete an elected term.
Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the main opposition Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) party, who has twice served as prime minister, said Gilani should quit and call fresh elections.
"Prime minister should immediately resign. He should step down without causing further crisis," Sharif said live on the private television station Geo.
The corruption allegations against Zardari date back to the 1990s, when he and his late wife, former premier Benazir Bhutto, are suspected of using Swiss bank accounts to launder about $12 million allegedly paid in bribes by companies seeking customs inspection contracts.
The Swiss shelved the cases in 2008 when Zardari became president and a prosecutor in Switzerland has said it will be impossible to re-open them as long as he remains head of state and so is immune from prosecution.
Gilani insists the president has full immunity, but in December 2009 the Supreme Court overturned a political amnesty that had frozen investigations into the president and other politicians.
Gilani left the court amid a scrum of journalists and PPP supporters.
Security was tight outside the court for the hearing, with around 200 riot police armed with shields and batons stationed outside and approaches closed to the public.