Pakistan military 'forced rethink on judge'

President's decision to bow to pressure and reinstate chief justice is hailed as historic moment in the evolution of Pakistan's fragile democracy
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The Independent Online

The line started at the gate, turned at the steps, passed through the front door and then slipped along a hallway before heading down some steps. There, in a downstairs room, surrounded by colleagues and beaming as if he were a child on his birthday, stood Iftikhar Chaudhry, shaking hands with the long, endless line and receiving a million congratulations. "I feel good," he declared, extending a large, fleshy hand and pumping enthusiastically.

On an historic day in which Pakistan's government was forced into an embarrassing capitulation to its political opponents and reinstated the former chief justice, it appeared as if everyone in the country wanted to meet Mr Chaudhry. No matter that the government's hand had been forced as much by the intervention of the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Pakistani army chief General Ashfaq Kayani as by the forces of democracy, Islamabad buzzed with euphoria about the restoration of the country's chief judge, ousted in 2007 by Pervez Musharraf.

Young and old, men and women, dancing Muslims and Christian bagpipe bands – everyone wanted to join in the celebrations for what was a rare feel-good event in a country where headlines are more often concerned with violence and political turmoil. "It feels like the country is finally moving towards democracy," said Bilquees Khan, one of five female law students gathered outside Mr Chaudhry's house.

The decision to reinstate the judge – announced by the Prime Minister Yousaf Gilani in a 6am televised address – came after a climb-down by the government of President Asif Ali Zardari following clashes in Lahore between police and demonstrators who had gathered in advance of a march to Islamabad. The demonstrators planned to hold a sit-in in front of the parliament after three weeks of confrontation between the government and its opponents.

Mr Zardari – opposed to the reinstatement of Mr Chaudhry out of concern he might reopen corruption charges against him – had been under intense pressure to end the stand-off with his opponents, made up of thousands of lawyers and supporters of his rival Nawaz Sharif, head of the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N). In recent days he had taken calls from Mrs Clinton and the British Foreign Secretary David Miliband and held three meetings with General Kayani, most recently on Sunday evening, something that raised concerns in some quarters that the army has not stopped intervening in the country's politics.

Mr Chaudhry, well known for his judicial investigations into a series of cases that embarrassed Pakistan's political establishment, was twice fired by General Musharraf, first in March 2007 and then later that year when the dictator imposed a state of emergency.

Experts said his restoration is important for Pakistan in several ways. At one level it marks a victory for those wishing to strengthen democratic institutions in Pakistan. At a practical level it also draws a line under two years of dispute triggered by Mr Chaudhry's dismissal. His ousting set in motion a series of events including the state of emergency, a backlash against General Musharraf and ultimately the dictator's resignation last summer. "It is a very important step forward," said Talat Hussain, a political commentator. "Without restoring the chief justice there would have been no acknowledgement that he had been illegally removed or of General Musharraf's actions against the judiciary."

While the decision to reappoint Mr Chaudhry – he will be restored next Saturday – has defused the immediate political crisis facing Mr Zardari and his Pakistan People's Party (PPP), the forced manner in which the concession was made will have raised more questions about his political judgement. The ugly scenes in Lahore, where police fired tear-gas and plastic bullets at peaceful protesters, will also have thrown into doubt his ability to lead this troubled country.

The successful outcome of the campaign to reinstate the judge has also strengthened the image of Mr Sharif, keen to position himself as an alternative to Mr Zardari. "From here, God willing, the fate of this nation will change," he told reporters. "From here, a journey of development will start. From here, a revolution will come."

In addition to restoring Mr Chaudhry and nine other ousted judges, the government said it would push for a review of a Supreme Court decision that last month forced the suspension of the provincial government of Punjab, led by Mr Sharif's brother, Shahbaz. Last night, for many Pakistanis, it was enough just to join in the celebrations surrounding the "people's power" victory. "This is a hugely important moment for Pakistan," said a businessman, Mohammed Yasin, who had joined the long line to shake hands with the man receiving the movie-star treatment. "If the judiciary is not independent, no country can move forward."

How Iftikhar Chaudhry offended two presidents

When was the chief justice sacked?

He was first fired by Pervez Musharraf on 9 March 2007, then reinstated by his own Supreme Court in July. In November 2007, General Musharraf fired Mr Chaudhry a second time, placing him under house arrest.

Why was he fired?

Initially, General Musharraf claimed corruption. In reality, he was angered by the judge's investigations into cases such as the "disappeared" people in Baluchistan. Mr Chaudhry was fired a second time because General Musharraf feared the Supreme Court would rule his 2007 re-election invalid.

Who rallied to the judge's cause?

Mr Chaudhry was championed by thousands of lawyers who believed Pakistan needed an independent judiciary. However, as he travelled around the country giving speeches, he became a lightning rod for various disaffected groups.

Why was Mr Zardari so determined not to reinstate him?

The President is reportedly concerned that the judge might decide to invalidate the National Reconciliation Ordinance issued by General Musharraf in October 2007. This gave amnesty to politicians and officials accused of corruption. The order opened the way for both Mr Zardari and his wife, the late Benazir Bhutto, to return to Pakistan from exile.

What will Mr Chaudhry's reinstatement mean?

It has both real and symbolic importance. It represents a victory for civil society groups determined to strengthen independent institutions and sends a signal that the judiciary should be free of political intervention. It has also defused the country's immediate political crisis. The government, however badly weakened, can stumble on to fight another day.

Andrew Buncombe