Down by Law in Pakistan

ISLAMABAD – On June 19, in what it called a “short order,” Pakistan’s Supreme Court removed Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani as the country’s prime minister, a post that he had held for more than four years – longer than any of his 16 predecessors. For those who favor democracy in Pakistan, the court’s decision is cause, not for concern, but for celebration.

Gilani had been convicted weeks earlier of contempt of court, after he refused to comply with a court order directing him to write to Swiss authorities and demand that they reopen a money-laundering investigation against President Asif Ali Zardari that had been launched in the mid-1990’s. Under Pakistan’s constitution, a convicted felon cannot serve in the national and provincial assemblies. Membership in the national assembly is required in order to serve as prime minister.

The Supreme Court issues short orders when it requires the authorities to take immediate action. Later, it also issues long judgments, in which it provides detailed reasoning for its position on an important point of law. In the short order of June 19, the court said that “the Election Commission shall issue a notice for disqualification and the president is required to take necessary action to ensure the continuation of the democratic process.” Since neither Gilani nor the government appealed the Supreme Court’s judgment in the contempt case, “the conviction has attained finality,” the court wrote.

The contempt conviction in May left the legislature and the government’s executive branch with very little room for maneuver. They were obliged to act as required by the constitution to remove the prime minister. The speaker of the national assembly required the Chief Election Commission to notify within 30 days that Gilani could no longer hold office. Upon receiving this notification, the CEC was to inform the president that the national assembly needed to be reconvened to elect Gilani’s successor.