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Pakistan's top court disqualifies PM

ISLAMABAD -- Pakistan's top court disqualified Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani from office Tuesday in a stunning move throwing the country into fresh turmoil just months before expected general elections.

The Supreme Court made the move after convicting Gilani on April 26 of contempt in a highly politicized case for refusing to ask Switzerland to reopen a multimillion-dollar graft investigation into President Asif Ali Zardari.

Although the ruling itself is unlikely to bring down the government, it could hasten the date of the next election unless the Pakistan People's Party and its fractious coalition members can agree on a consensus, interim prime minister.

It causes fresh uncertainty in a country that is increasingly trying U.S. patience over al-Qaida-linked havens, struggling with a Taliban insurgency and heading deeper towards a financial crisis that could force it back to the IMF.

“Yousuf Raza Gilani has become disqualified from being member of the parliament,” said the order read by chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry.

“He has also ceased to be the prime minister of Pakistan with effect from the same date (April 26) and office of the prime minister shall be deemed to be vacant accordingly,” it said.

“The president of Pakistan is required to take necessary steps under the constitution to ensure continuation of the democratic process through parliamentary system of government in the country,” Chaudhry read.

Zardari immediately convened emergency talks among top leaders in his main ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and then summoned heads of coalition parties to the presidency for further talks at 8 p.m. (1500 GMT), a government official said.

Officials were tight-lipped on how the president would respond, saying only that the series of meetings was being called to “assess the situation.”

Gilani, Pakistan's first sitting prime minister to be convicted, has faced down widespread calls from the opposition to quit.

He has insisted that only parliament can remove him from office.

Members of his government have accused judges of over-stepping their reach and of trying to bring down Gilani and Zardari before February 2013, when the administration would become the first in Pakistan to complete a full five-year term.

Under the constitution, anyone convicted of defaming or ridiculing the judiciary is barred from being an MP.

The matter of disqualification fell first to the speaker of parliament, Fehmida Mirza, a member of the PPP who on May 24 said conviction for contempt was not a charge that meant he should be disqualified under the constitution.

Gilani subsequently decided not to appeal against his conviction in a move interpreted as an effort not to antagonize the court into disqualifying him.

But senior opposition politicians, including cricket legend Imran Khan and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, challenged the ruling.

The allegations against Zardari date back to the 1990s, when he and his late wife, former premier Benazir Bhutto, are suspected of using Swiss banks to launder US$12 million allegedly paid in bribes by companies seeking customs inspection contracts.

The Swiss shelved the cases in 2008 when Zardari became president.

Gilani has always insisted Zardari has full immunity as head of state and last month said that writing to the Swiss would be a violation of the constitution.

He was briefly — but symbolically — held in the courtroom for his sentence, which ended as soon as the judges arose for the day after announcing the verdict.

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