Blow to Musharraf as new premier frees chief justice

Iftikhar Chaudhry, Pakistan's deposed chief justice, has been freed from house arrest within minutes of the country's new Prime Minister being chosen, in a swift double blow to President Pervez Musharraf.

Mr Chaudhry, long a thorn in Mr Musharraf's side, had been under house arrest for five months following his sacking, but he emerged triumphant on to the balcony of his white-walled mansion to loud cheers from the crowds gathered on the lawn below.

"On behalf of all judges of the high courts and supreme [court] who were illegally and unconstitutionally detained for the last five months, I thank all of you for your support," said Mr Chaudhry, wearing a bullet-proof vest concealed beneath his long black tunic. "I do not have enough words to thank you all."

The judge was released on the orders of Yousaf Raza Gilani, a long-time loyalist of the assassinated leader Benazir Bhutto and member of her PPP party, who was elected as Pakistan's Prime Minister with more than two-thirds of the votes in a parliamentary ballot.

Yesterday's events will not have made for comfortable viewing at the presidential estate in Rawalpindi. The chants of "Go, Musharraf, go" at the judges' colony echoed the slogans heard in parliament, where the forces are now arrayed against the deeply unpopular President, with a man he imprisoned for four years at its head.

"Democracy has been revived due to the sacrifice of Benazir Bhutto," bellowed Mr Gilani, in his opening remarks to the parliament. "We didn't get here out of charity. This moment came because of continued struggle and martyrdom."

Mr Chaudhry's release is the most striking symbol yet of how power has slipped away from Mr Musharraf, a key Washington ally. But it remains to be seen if he and the 60 other judges sacked when the President imposed a state of emergency last November will be reinstated.

"We still have to achieve our goal and we must keep our efforts focused for a bright future for Pakistan for the rule of law and the supremacy of the constitution," said Mr Chaudhry.

Earlier this month, Pakistan's two largest parties – the PPP, led by Ms Bhutto's widower Asif Zardari, and the PML-N, led by the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif – said they would reinstate the sacked judges through a vote in parliament within 30 days of a government being formed.

Khwaja Asif, a senior member of Mr Sharif's party, said: "This was our promise to the nation, and we stand by it." But some senior PPP members are less inclined, with one complaining that Mr Chaudhry's enthusiasm for challenging the bureaucracy "could make it difficult for a government to work properly".