How Gilani turned contempt case from catastrophe to triumph

Pakistan's Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani waves after arriving at the Supreme Court in Islamabad April 26, 2012.

Three months ago, a momentous outburst of court cases against Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani's government appeared to push it into the eye of the storm.

The country's powerful military threw its weight openly behind the judiciary in what has come to be known as the memo scandal, and upbeat judges charged Mr Gilani for contempt of court in a separate case, calling him "prima facie a dishonest man".

On Thursday, a seemingly subdued bench sentenced him to court custody which some witnesses say lasted for just 30 seconds.

And it stopped short of convicting him under a law that could lead to his automatic disqualification.

So has Mr Gilani managed to turn a possible political catastrophe into a triumph?

Slogans of triumph

For today's hearing, the prime minister wore the Pakistani national dress --- shalwar trousers, kameez shirt and shervani, a Nehru-collared black long coat.

Image caption Critics accuse the military and judiciary of a witch hunt

Accompanied by his cabinet colleagues and allied party leaders, he drove up to the outer precincts of the Supreme Court building from where he walked to Courtroom No 4 where the trial was held.

He appeared in a relaxed mood as he waved to dozens of sympathisers who had gathered outside the court.

Within the court, after the guilty verdict had been read out to him, he completed his custodial term within the space of a single four-word sentence uttered three times over; "A submission, my lord."

The rising bench paid him no heed.

Moments later, he walked out a free man, greeted by women activists of his PPP party with loud slogans of triumph.

So in a way, the high drama that surrounded the early stages of this trial ended in a whimper.

But did this come as a surprise?

For those who have kept an eye on the overall political, economic and security situation of the country, it didn't really.

Scandal subsided

Over the past couple of years, a perception has been growing that the country's top judiciary has been selective in its judgements, dealing harshly with the PPP leadership but being soft on the military and some opposition politicians.

The PPP, which has traditionally been mistrusted by the country's powerful security establishment, bided its first three years in office lying low, trying to survive.

Image caption Supporters of Mr Gilani were gathered outside the court as the judgement was delivered

It decided to strike back in December when the memo scandal broke out.

This revolved around a controversial memo which a former Pakistani ambassador to the US was accused of having initiated, allegedly at the behest of President Asif Zardari, to invite US intervention to prevent a possible military coup.

When the Supreme Court took up the case, questions were raised over the role the military had played in bringing that scandal to the fore.

Subsequently, Prime Minister Gilani, in unprecedented remarks in late December, told the parliament that while the civilian government had stood side by side with the military in difficult times, "they (the military) can't be a state within the state".

Given the PPP's potential to ignite protests across large parts of the country, the army apparently backed down, allowing the memo scandal to subside.

The contempt of court case against Mr Gilani appears to have met the same fate.

It came at the height of the PPP's tension with the military and the judiciary.

It was centred on an earlier judgment of the court that asked the government to write a letter to the Swiss government to re-open a corruption case against President Zardari which had been closed.

The prime minister was charged with contempt for failing to write that letter.

Prolonged trial

As the memo case went on the backburner, the contempt case also began to lose steam.

From the early expectations of a quick and harsh judgment, the case eased into a prolonged trial that has stretched over three months.

Many believe that through its order today, the court has tried to put an end to an increasingly difficult situation and has left the matter of Mr Gilani's disqualification to others, whoever they might be - the parliament, the media, the political opposition.

Some politicians, including the main opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, have already called on the prime minister to resign in the wake of his conviction.

The media will also be raising this question in coming days.

But will the parliament also make a similar demand?

One opposition politician in an informal chat outside the court said it was unlikely because "Gilani has the numbers".

Even if Mr Gilani finds himself disqualified at some point in the near-future, the parliamentary opposition is not expected to create hurdles in the election of his replacement, analysts say.

Given the defiant mood of the PPP, they say, Mr Nawaz Sharif's PML-N party is unlikely to take the confrontation to a pitch where extra-parliamentary forces, notably the military, would find the room to step in.

Such confrontation can also confound the already brittle security situation of the country.

An indication of such a scenario was at play in parts of southern Punjab and most of Sindh province where PPP activists took to the streets soon after the court verdict, forcing markets to close and burning tyres on roads to suspend traffic.