Pakistani leader gives in and reinstates top judge

Posted in Pakistan | 16-Mar-09 | Author: Jane Perlez| Source: International Herald Tribune

Pakistani lawyers lift a policeman as they celebrate the restoration of Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry in Lahore on Monday.

LAHORE, Pakistan: The Pakistani government agreed Monday to reinstate the independent-minded former chief justice of the Supreme Court, a stunning concession to the opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, who had been heading toward the capital in a convoy threatening to stage a mass protest over the issue after he broke free from house arrest at his residence near here.

The concession, broadcast on national television by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, came after a tumultuous weekend in Pakistani politics in which a dispute between President Asif Ali Zardari and Mr. Sharif escalated into a crisis that was destabilizing a nuclear-armed nation already under pressure from a growing Islamic insurgency and severe economic troubles.

The decision to restore the chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, came after calls to Mr. Zardari and Mr. Sharif, including from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, asking them to ease their differences.

The Obama administration's special representative to Pakistan, Richard C. Holbrooke, said the United States applauded "the statesmanlike act by President Zardari and hopes that it will help defuse a dangerous confrontation so that Pakistan, with the help of its many friends, can address the nation's pressing and urgent needs."

In reaction to Mr. Zardari's concession, Mr. Sharif said he would call off his protest and the planned sit-in in the capital. He said the restoration of the chief justice was a victory for Pakistan and a due but belated move by the president. After making his remarks in Gujranawala, he returned to his home in Raiwind, outside of Lahore.

The restoration of Mr. Chaudhry, who was dismissed two years ago by President Pervez Musharraf, appeared to show new weakness by Mr. Zardari. The former chief justice's fate was a festering unresolved issue between Mr. Zardari and Mr. Sharif while the two men led a coalition government last year.

A lawyers' movement has agitated for Mr. Chaudhry's return, and Mr. Sharif made Mr. Chaudhry, as a symbol of an independent judiciary, the centerpiece of his platform since his return to Pakistani politics from his exile in late 2007.

Word of Mr. Chaudhry's rehabilitation followed a momentous weekend in which the government had tried but failed to prevent a protest by Mr. Sharif and the lawyers in Lahore, Mr. Sharif's political power base.

After the police placed him under house arrest Sunday morning, Mr. Sharif and his entourage broke through barricades at his home and drove to the center of Lahore, where a pitched battle had taken place between his supporters and the police.

But in apparent deference to Mr. Sharif, the police melted away, and he proceeded from Lahore in a convoy of cars along the 320-kilometer, or 200-mile, route to the capital.

During that trip, the prime minister appeared on television, and jubilant supporters of the chief justice rallied outside Mr. Chaudhry's home in Islamabad. Even before the formal announcement, Mr. Chaudhry was receiving elated lawyers and supporters at his house at 3 a.m.

Mr. Gilani said Mr. Chaudhry would take his seat on the Supreme Court on March 21.

In his speech broadcast a few minutes before 6 a.m., the prime minister also lifted security restrictions imposed Wednesday to try to deter protest by Mr. Sharif and his supporters.

Just before the prime minister spoke, Pakistani television reported that roadblocks into the capital were being removed, a sign that Mr. Sharif and his supporters would apparently be welcome as victors, not protesters.

Mr. Sharif and Mr. Zardari fought over the future of Mr. Chaudhry until their coalition fell apart last September over what Mr. Sharif said was Mr. Zardari's refusal to reinstate the chief justice.

Mr. Sharif accused the president of refusing to reinstate the judge because of Mr. Zardari's fears that Mr. Chaudhry would repeal an amnesty on corruption charges that had been granted to Mr. Zardari and his wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

As chief justice, Mr. Chaudhry was an unusual maverick who was widely honored in the past year by U.S. universities and bar associations.

He had asked the Musharraf government to bring intelligence officials to his court to explain the disappearances of hundreds of Pakistanis believed held without charges since the U.S. war on terrorism began in 2001.

He was dismissed on March 9, 2007, by General Musharraf, who apparently believed that Mr. Chaudhry would prevent him from running for a third term.

The collapse of the security effort in Lahore, apparently on the orders of the provincial police, represented an erosion of authority that foreshadowed serious problems ahead for Mr. Zardari's weak national government, politicians and analysts said. Mr. Sharif's emergence from house detention and his ability to draw huge crowds demonstrated his popularity and the credence of his cause, they said.

The army's chief of staff, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, was widely reported to have met with Mr. Zardari and Mr. Gilani on Sunday and to have urged a solution to the crisis. General Kayani has said he wants to keep the army out of politics, but there is speculation about how long the army's patience would hold.

The turnout of jubilant crowds in Lahore after Mr. Sharif broke his house detention came as police officers who had been hurling tear gas at protesters suddenly receded and stood idly by.

While there was no official explanation for the turnaround, it appeared the police did not have their hearts in the attack on the protesters.

"It was one of the most remarkable scenes in the city's recent history," said Arif Nizami, editor in chief of The Nation newspaper, a daily with national circulation.

The outpouring of support for Mr. Sharif showed that "Mr. Zardari was on the ropes," he said.

Lahore is the capital of Punjab Province, the most populous and politically significant province, where Mr. Sharif and his brother, Shahbaz, have long held sway.

Mr. Zardari made what is generally seen as a power grab on Feb. 25, when he dismissed the Punjab Legislature and introduced federal executive rule. The president acted after the Supreme Court disqualified Mr. Sharif and his brother, who is the chief minister of Punjab, from holding elective office.

Waqar Gillani contributed reporting.