(Reuters) - Pakistan's Supreme Court on Thursday found Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani guilty of contempt of court for refusing to reopen corruption cases against the president, but gave him only a symbolic sentence of a few minutes' detention in the courtroom.
It was unclear if the token sentence would defuse political uncertainty in Pakistan, where the president and prime minister have jousted with the military and judiciary. Despite the light sentence, Gilani could still come under pressure to quit.
"For reasons to be recorded later, the prime minister is found guilty of contempt for willfully flouting the direction of the Supreme Court," said Justice Nasir-ul-Mulk.
Gilani is the first serving prime minister in Pakistan's history to be convicted by a court, but his sentence - detention lasting just a few minutes until the session was adjourned - was symbolic. He could have faced up to six months in jail and the loss of office.
"I think what they've done is taken it from the legal arena and chucked it into the political arena," said Cyril Almeida, a prominent columnist for the Dawn daily newspaper.
He said opposition members of parliament now might move to expel Gilani from office.
"There will be massive pressure from the opposition, the media, from civil society, saying 'He's been convicted for flouting the letter of the law and he should go home,'" Almeida said. "There will be a lot of pressure for him to resign."
A throng of supporters surrounded Gilani as he walked into the court in Islamabad, showering him with rose petals. Security was tight, with about 1,000 police officers standing by in riot gear and helicopters circling the Supreme Court building.
Gilani's lawyers had said before the verdict that he would not automatically be disqualified from office if convicted, and at any rate he would be able to appeal against the verdict.
The case stems from what many observers say is a political battle between the government and the military, which has held the whip hand in Pakistan's political arena for most of the country's 64 years of independence. Many say the army is using the court to keep the government on the back foot.
Thousands of corruption cases were thrown out in 2007 by an amnesty law passed under former military president Pervez Musharraf, which paved the way for a return to civilian rule. Two years later, the Supreme Court ruled that agreement illegal and ordered cases involving Swiss banks against President Asif Ali Zardari re-opened.
Gilani and his government have refused to obey the court's order to write to Swiss authorities asking them to re-open money laundering cases against Zardari. The government argues that Zardari has immunity as the head of state.
"This is a historic day. The court has declared a lawmaker a lawbreaker. This is weakening democracy in Pakistan," said Firdous Ashiq Awan, former information minister.