Islamabad:  In a first, Pakistan's embattled Premier Yousuf Raza Gilani was on Monday indicted for contempt by the Supreme Court for failing to reopen graft cases against the President, but he pleaded not guilty to charges which may cost him his job and plunge the nation into further disarray.

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Dressed in a dark suit with grey tie, 59-year-old Gilani personally drove in his white SUV to the Supreme Court to be charged with contempt for defying its order for two years to revive graft cases against President Asif Ali Zardari.
   
As Gilani stood at a rostrum in the courtroom, Justice Nasir-ul-Mulk, who headed the seven-judge bench, read out the two-page charge sheet and asked him whether he had gone through the charges against him and understood them.
   
To this, Gilani responded by saying, "Yes, I have read the charge sheet and have understood them."
   
"Do you plead guilty?" asked Justice Nasir-ul-Mulk.
   
"No," Gilani replied.
   
If convicted, Gilani could face up to six months in jail and would be disqualified to hold public office for 5 years. The court has directed Attorney General Maulvi Anwarul Haq to prosecute the case, giving him until February 16 to file documents.
   
It set a February 22 date for the next hearing and asked the defence to file evidence by February 27, which will then be recorded on February 28. Following this, a date is expected to be set for Gilani's trial.
   
In its order, the bench said, "You, Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani, have willfully flouted, disregarded and disobeyed the directions" from the apex court to revive graft cases against Zardari in Switzerland. "Thereby you have committed contempt of court ... and you are to be tried."

Gilani, who became the first serving Prime Minister to be charged with contempt, however, will be exempted from personally appearing in future hearings.
   
The indictment paving the way for Gilani's trial, marks another chapter to the over two-year long confrontation between the government and the judiciary over the issue of the graft amnesty to politicians.
    
Legal experts have said Gilani could be imprisoned for six months if he is convicted and face possible disqualification.
   
However, reports have suggested that the President could pardon him after his possible conviction.
   
The Apex Court has been pressuring the government to reopen cases of alleged money laundering against Zardari in Switzerland since December 2009, when it struck down a graft amnesty issued by former military ruler Pervez Musharraf that benefited the President and over 8,000 others.
   
The ruling PPP has argued that the cases cannot be reopened as the President enjoys complete immunity in the country and abroad.
   
The PPP has been reluctant to act because top leaders believe any action on the cases in Switzerland could give the Supreme Court an opportunity to interpret the Constitutional provision related to presidential immunity.
   
The Apex Court last week rejected Gilani's appeal against the summons issued to him in the contempt case.
   
The Premier has said he would automatically be disqualified as a Parliamentarian if he is convicted by the court.
    
Asked during an interview with Al-Jazeera if he would stand down on being convicted, Gilani said: "Certainly, then there is no need to step down. If I am convicted, then I'm not even supposed to be a Member of Parliament."
    
Gilani reiterated that the President enjoyed complete immunity inside Pakistan and abroad.

Gilani drove out of his official residence, located a short distance from the Supreme Court, in a motorcade on a gloomy morning as heavy rains poured down. The motorcade stopped on the road outside the court and Gilani personally drove his white SUV up to the porch of the building.
   
The Premier waved to the crowd outside the Apex Court as scores of heavily-armed security personnel stood guard.
   
Authorities used a helicopter to mount surveillance as part of special security measures put in place for Gilani's second appearance in court for the contempt case.
   
Gilani first appeared before the bench hearing the case on January 19 along with his lawyer, Aitzaz Ahsan, a senior PPP leader and one of the country's leading legal minds.
    
During Monday's hearing, Ahsan informed the court that he would be unavailable till February 21 as he would be occupied with scrutiny of his nomination papers for polls to the Senate or upper house of Parliament and a private visit to London.
   
Gilani sat between ANP chief Asfandyar Wali Khan and PML-Q head Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain inside courtroom number 4, while several federal ministers sat in the rows behind him.
At the conclusion of the hearing, Gilani's bodyguards took him out through a side entrance due to security concerns.
   
Emerging from the court, PPP spokesman Qamar Zaman Kaira told the media that Gilani was "not guilty and this will be proved in court." Gilani was "the Prime Minister and he will remain the Prime Minister," he said.
    
"We are in a difficult position. For the first time a Prime Minister of Pakistan has been charged. It's a sad day in the history of Pakistan," Kaira said.
   
Religious Affairs Minister Khursheed Shah, tipped as a possible replacement for Gilani, told reporters that a decision will be made on writing a letter to Swiss authorities by the PPP after the Apex Court gives its order.

(Agencies)