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Top Pakistan court disqualifies prime minister from office

Aamir Qureshi / AFP - Getty Images, file

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani (center) is escorted by security as he waves upon his arrival at the Supreme Court building in Islamabad on April 26.

Pakistan's Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani was disqualified by the country's top court and declared ineligible to hold office Tuesday.

On April 26, judges convicted Gilani in contempt of court proceedings for refusing to open a corruption probe against President Asif Ali Zardari. The court said Tuesday that Gilani should not have held office since that verdict was announced.

The April ruling was previously questioned by the speaker of the National Assembly, who decided that the court order did not cast any doubt on the premier's right to hold office.

Anjum Naveed / AP

Images of daily life, political pursuits, religious rites and deadly violence.

But the speaker's decision was struck down Tuesday by a bench of judges headed by the Chief Justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Chaudhry.

After his contempt of court conviction in April, Prime Minister Gilani had 30 days within which he could file an appeal. He failed to do so, arguing that the President enjoyed immunity from prosecution -- but his failure to file an appeal rendered the earlier conviction final, and disqualifed him from office.

Gilani had the opportunity to challenge the conviction legally, but chose instead to stand on principle. 

"Since no appeal was filed (against the April 26 conviction) ... therefore Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani stands disqualifed as a member of the Majlis-e-Shoora (parliament)," Chaudhry said in a packed courtroom, according to Reuters.

"He has also ceased to be the prime minister of Pakistan ... the office of the prime minister stands vacant," the judge added.

Gilani's lawyer, Fawad Chaudhry, told The Associated Press that only parliament could dismiss the prime minister. 

The Supreme Court ruling came in response to petitions filed against Gilani for not standing down after the conviction. 

Emergency meetings
In their written order Tuesday, judges reminded Zardari that he is "required to take necessary steps under the Constitution to ensure continuation of the democratic process."

Senior leaders of Gilani's party -- the PPP (Pakistan People's Party) -- were reportedly in emergency meetings Tuesday. The party does enjoy a majority in parliament to elect their chosen successor.

The civilian government has been lurching from crisis to crisis for the majority of the last year, in what many saw as a power struggle between the powerful army, judiciary, and government.

Tuesday's action is likely to throw the government into further turmoil, as they struggle to become the first civilian government to complete a full five-year term before the scheduled elections in February 2013. The instability could lead to early elections being called. 

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Pakistani leaders are so consumed with keeping their government stable and remaining in power, they're unable to devote the necessary attention nor make any bold decisions to re-engage with the U.S. and get the alliance back on track.

The overland NATO supply lines which run through Pakistan have been closed since November, shuttered in protest about a U.S. cross-border strike in which 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed.

A U.S. team recently spent weeks in Pakistan, negotiating new rates to re-open those supply lines, but left without any resolution. 

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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