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After Conviction, Pakistani Prime Minister 'Imprisoned' For Just A Few Minutes

Convicted today of contempt for refusing to push for the reopening of a corruption case involving Pakistan's president, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was given a prison sentence that lasted just a few minutes.

"The ruling ... appeared to be a compromise," The Associated Press writes, "but could still mean problems for him because he has been convicted in a court. That means he could face dismissal from office in the weeks, or more likely, months to come."

In passing judgment, the court said that:

"As regards the sentence to be passed against the convict, we note that the findings and the conviction for contempt of court recorded above are likely to entail some serious consequences in terms of Article 63 (1) (g) of the Constitution which may be treated as mitigating factors towards the sentence to be passed against him. He is, therefore, punished under Article 5 of the contempt of court ordinance (ordinance 5 of 2003) with imprisonment till the rising of the court today."

By "imprisonment till the rising of the court today," the court meant that the "sentence" would last until today's session was adjourned.

According to the AP, the judges left the chamber "about three minutes after the verdict was handed down."

The wire service summarizes the legal dispute this way:

"The source of the current conflict is a graft case against President Asif Ali Zardari that involves kickbacks he and his late wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, allegedly received from Swiss companies when Bhutto was in power in the 1990s. They were found guilty in absentia in a Swiss court in 2003.

"Zardari appealed, but Swiss prosecutors ended up dropping the case in 2008 after the Pakistani government approved an ordinance giving the president and others immunity from old corruption cases that many agreed were politically motivated.

"The Pakistani Supreme Court ruled the ordinance unconstitutional in 2009 and ordered the government to write a letter to Swiss authorities requesting they reopen the case against Zardari. Gilani has refused, saying the Pakistani constitution grants the president immunity from criminal prosecution while in office."

Update at 5:15 p.m. ET: From her base in Pakistan, NPR's Julie McCarthy says the decision against Gilani is raising many issues.

"The first ever verdict against a sitting prime minister has set in train a whole series of questions: Will the prime minister be disqualified from office? Will he remain in office? Will he resign? And what becomes of President Asif Ali Zardari whom he sought to protect by not complying with court orders?"

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Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.