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Reinstatement Of Top Pakistani Judge Revives Democratic Hopes

Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry (left) waves to supporters at his residence in Islamabad after his reinstatement was announced
Many of Pakistan's 160 million citizens spent the night of March 15 glued to their television sets and radios. But they would have to wait until the next morning to hear Prime Minster Yousaf Raza Gilani deliver the announcement they were waiting for: deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry had been reinstated to his position.

The news was met with jubilation across Pakistan. Lawyers and political activists who had gathered outside Chaudhry's residence late on March 15 erupted into euphoria upon hearing the news early the next morning.

Chaudhry became the face of the lawyers' movement when he and 60 senior judges were deposed by then-President Pervez Musharraf after a state of emergency was imposed in November 2007. The previous March, an attempt to dismiss Chaudhry was overturned by the country's Supreme Court.

The latest decision reinstates the other deposed judges along with Chaudhry, who will assume the office of chief justice on March 21, when Justice Abdul Hameed Dogar retires, Prime Minister Gilani said.

Following the announcement, opposition leader Nawaz Sharif called off a previously planned march on the capital protesting the government's failure to bring back justice officials dismissed by the previous presidential administration.

The scheduled march on Islamabad had fueled fears that the country's military would take advantage of intensifying political rivalries and retake power.

International Relief

Richard Holbrooke, U.S. President Barack Obama's special envoy to Pakistan, called the decision a "statesmanlike move by President [Asif Ali] Zardari," and expressed hope that it would "defuse a dangerous confrontation," according to "The New York Times."

Holbrooke is believed to have played a key role in persuading Pakistani leaders to avoid confrontation, as are U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband.

Latif Afridi, the president of the Peshawar High Court Bar Association, and a key leader of the lawyer's movement, called the development a victory for Pakistan's democracy. He told RFE/RL that the leaders in Islamabad were forced to make the decision because they realized that they could not face down hundreds of thousands of angry protestors in the capital.

"It is good that the struggle of Pakistan's democratic forces is ending in their demands being granted," Afridi said. "The military generals couldn't dare to intervene, despite the conditions being favorable for them. I think the army's chief of staff [General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani] realized that military rule is very unpopular, so taking over power was not an option."

General Kayani, who was appointed by Musharraf before he resigned from the presidency in August, is widely perceived by Pakistan observers as having kept the military out of politics so that it could focus on its professional responsibilities.

A civilian government led by the secular Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) assumed power last April after nine years of military rule under Musharraf. But critics were not satisfied with its performance, particularly its failure to reinstate justice Chaudhry, in spite of its promises to do so in three written agreements.

Fuel For The Lawyers

Political tensions peaked last month after a Supreme Court decision banned opposition leader and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from holding elected office. The ban also applied to Sharif's brother.

The court decision cost Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) its provincial government in Punjab, the most populous and prosperous Pakistani province.

It also gave fresh impetus to the lawyers' movement, while pitting the country's two largest political parties, the PML-N and the governing PPP, against each other.

On March 15, Sharif defied house arrest orders and led tens of thousands of protestors toward Islamabad from his stronghold in eastern Lahore.

Although the prime minister's announcement was widely welcomed, some officials remained cautious, such as Athar Minallah, a lawyer and spokesman for Chaudhry.

"If there is any sort of devious design behind this move, which I believe there is not, or if there is a plan to use the parliament to get the same results that Pervez Musharraf wanted to get on March 9, 2007, or if this is a reinstatement just in name, then the nation is going to be very disappointed," Minallah said.

Many in the Pakistani political spectrum are now calling for consensus on key national issues, including ending the Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgency in the country's border regions with Afghanistan and prompting a turnaround for the country's failing economy.

In what is considered to be a good omen for the economy, Pakistan's benchmark Karachi stock exchange gained 300 points in trading on March 16.

But the political arena remains volatile, as the government must yet address a political crisis in Punjab Province, where the imposition of rule by a Zardari-appointed governor has apparently backfired.

Former judge Tariq Mehmood, a leader of the lawyers' successful protest campaign, called the decision to reinstate Chaudhry "a victory for those Pakistanis who made a commitment towards the rule of law,"

But at the same time, Mehmood said, "this is going to increase our responsibilities in the coming days."
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.