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Pakistan's PM gets a slap on the wrist

The Associated Press

ISLAMABAD -- Pakistan's Supreme Court convicted Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani of contempt yesterday but handed him a symbolic sentence of less than a minute's detention, allowing him to leave the building surrounded by cheering supporters and still in power.

The ruling against Gilani triggered renewed political turmoil and could lead to his dismissal in the coming months. The tensions risk consuming a government already burdened with major economic and security challenges.

The latest twist in a long-running saga came as an American en-voy arrived in the country to kick-start negotiations over Washington's broken alliance with Pakistan. The United States needs Islamabad's help in ending the Afghan war, and wants it to reopen war supply lines to Afghanistan that it blocked in November.

Gilani was charged with contempt for his refusal to pursue a corruption case against his political master, President Asif Ali Zardari. The court could have sent him to prison for six months and ordered his immediate dismissal from office, but appeared to blink first in what has been a bruising standoff.

"The prime minister has not been convicted of any moral crime. No one needs to give us a lesson in morality," said Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira, adding that the verdict would be appealed.

Gilani is the longest-serving prime minister in the coup-ridden history of Pakistan. The government he heads is woefully inept and corrupt, according to foreign diplomats and analysts, but many activists say it should be allowed to complete its term and have elections decide the next government.

Gilani arrived at the imposing court building on foot, flanked by government ministers and in showers of pink rose petals tossed by supporters.

A seven-judge panel read out a ruling that found him guilty of contempt and sentenced him to prison only "until the rising of the court," or by the time the judges left the chamber. That happened about a minute after the verdict was handed down.

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