What the contempt conviction means, and what it doesn’t

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani leaving court

I have refrained from writing about the recent conviction of Pakistan’s Prime Minister on contempt of court charges because the case, from my perspective – as well as many whom I’ve talked with – is a bit confusing. Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped much of the mainstream media from publishing alarming reports that could easily misguide people into thinking that the case means more than it does.

The day the Court announced its decision, CBS News declared that, Pakistan’s government “was thrown in turmoil…after Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was convicted on a contempt-of-court charge by the country’s Supreme Court,” and went on to quote anonymous western diplomats in Islamabad predicting that, “early elections are a very real possibility because of this turmoil.”

A few days later, however, both houses of Pakistan’s parliament passed resolutions voicing “complete confidence” in the embattled Prime Minister. Opposition politicians continue to try to make hay of the Prime Minister’s conviction, but the election of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) candidate Usman Bhatti to a seat deep in the constituency of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) suggests that Pakistani voters do not see the case as particularly damning.

Other news reports exaggerate not the fallout from, but the nature of the conviction. Foreign Policy magazine published an otherwise informative analysis by AEI’s Reza Nasim Jan with the glaringly misleading headline, “Pakistan’s Federal Felon”.

While the Supreme Court’s case has created confusion even among Pakistani legal experts, there is significant reason to believe that the case is not as severe as opposition politicians may be trying to make it out to be.

In its order, the Supreme Court did not invoke Section 6 of the Contempt of Court Ordinance 2003 which specifically defines the requirements for criminal contempt. In fact, reading Section 6, it’s pretty clear why – it doesn’t appear to apply to the Prime Minister’s case.

The Prime Minister was charged with a violation of Article 204(2) of the Constitution read with Section 3 of the Contempt of Court Ordinance 2003. Together, these broadly-worded laws basically define ‘Contempt of Court’ as anything that a Judge deems contemptuous – political cartoonists beware. The Prime Minister was punished under Section 5 of the Contempt of Court Ordinance 2003, which provides for a fine and jail time. His actual sentence was about 30-seconds.

Additionally, prior to the Supreme Court announcing its decision, Pakistani media reported that the Prime Minister had been charged with civil contempt:

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.

It is also noteworthy that, in the Supreme Court’s order, the justices wrote that “the findings and the conviction for contempt of court recorded above are likely to1 entail some serious consequences in terms of Article 63(1)(g) of the Constitution…” As legal analyst Waris Husain noted in Dawn,

The Court used the language “likely to entail” because the right to terminate parliamentarians’ tenure is constitutionally vested in the Speaker of the National Assembly and the Election Commission. Under Article 63 (2), once the Speaker has received notice of a parliamentarian’s conviction, he/she may forward the issue to the Election Board within 30 days which must make a decision within 90 days. This process is the exclusive duty of the legislative department, rather than the Court. Therefore, the process to disqualify the prime minister has only just begun.

Without doubt, the conviction was a blow to the Prime Minister and an unwanted distraction for the governing coalition – especially as negotiations with the US continue. But, as pointed out by the State Department, “this as an internal domestic issue…and is being addressed in a legitimate and democratic fashion by the Pakistani judicial system.”

Sensational and misleading media reports not only add to confusion about the issue in the US, they can add to confusion in Pakistan as well, unnecessarily calling into doubt the independence of Pakistani institutions and indirectly interfering with the democratic process.

Pakistan’s Supreme Court rendered its decision in the Prime Minister’s case, and it chose not to remove him from office. The Prime Minister has the right to appeal, and the decision of whether he will remain Prime Minister rests with the democratically elected representatives of the people of Pakistan. The process may seem noisy and confusing to us in the US, but – so far – it appears to be working.

1 Emphasis added

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