ISLAMABAD - Plunging the South Asian Muslim country into a new political crisis, Pakistan's top court on Tuesday, July 19, declared Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani ineligible for office, a move seen as part of the ongoing conflict between the judiciary and the government.
"Yusuf Raza Gilani stands disqualified as a member of the Majlis-e-Shoora (parliament)," Supreme Court Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry said in a ruling cited by Reuters.
"He has also ceased to be the prime minister of Pakistan ... the office of the prime minister stands vacant."
In April, the Supreme Court found Gilani guilty of contempt of court for refusing to reopen corruption cases against President Asif Ali Zardari.
Under Pakistan's constitution, anyone convicted of defaming or ridiculing the judiciary is barred from being an MP.
Gilani is the first serving prime minister in Pakistan's history to be convicted by a court.
The Supreme Court directed the Election Commission of Pakistan to issue a notification declaring Gilani ineligible for office.
"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.
Gilani has been facing growing calls from the opposition to step down.
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.
Though the ruling is a big blow to the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP), it is unlikely to lead to the fall of the unpopular government.
The PPP and its coalition partners have the numbers in parliament to elect a new prime minister until the government's term ends early next year when a general election is due.
The court ruling won praise from the Pakistani opposition
It upholds the supremacy of the law and the Constitution, Shahbaz Sharif, a senior leader of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N Party, which instigated the court action, told The New York Times.
But legal experts opine that the Supreme Court has overstepped authority in disqualifying the prime minister.
"The Supreme Court has expanded its domain once again," analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi told Reuters.
"The Supreme Court does not have the power to dismiss the prime minister, only the parliament does.
It's the first time in Pakistan's history that the Supreme Court has removed a prime minister and it has created a precedent."
Fawad Chaudhry, a senior aide to Gilani, also said only parliament could dismiss the prime minister.
Tuesday's verdict adds to the political turmoil in Pakistan, which is facing a dizzying array of problems, from widespread poverty to a struggling economy.
In the last few days, Pakistanis furious over power cuts that can last up to 18 hours a day in some areas and have crippled key industries have burned tyres in the streets and thrown rocks at buildings.
On Tuesday, guards shot at protesters who were trying to force their way into a politician's house in the central Pakistani town of Kamalia. Two of them died of their wounds.
The verdict is also expected to complicate the already troubled relations between Pakistan and the United States.
Ties between Washington and Islamabad have deteriorated since a unilateral US special forces raid that killed Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil last year. That operation humiliated Pakistan's military.
Pakistan has closed supply routes to NATO forces in Afghanistan following a cross-border strike that killed two dozen of its soldiers last year.
Islamabad is seen as critical to US efforts to pacify Afghanistan after more than a decade of war against the Taliban.
But some experts believe that the ruling is part of an ongoing conflict between the judiciary and the political leadership in the country.
"The judiciary and executive branch are locked in a chess match and moves and counter moves are taking place," Kamran Bokhari, vice-president of Middle Eastern and South Asian Affairs with global intelligence company Stratfor, told Reuters."It's not checkmate yet. It's definitely heated up but I don't think anyone's been checkmated yet."