Pakistan reinstates judge to divert crisis

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The Independent Online

Pakistan's beleaguered government today caved into the demands of thousands of protesters and reinstated an ousted judge in a move designed to end a paralysing political crisis.

In a dawn address to the nation that capped a day and night of high drama, prime minister Yousaf Giliani announced that former chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry would be restored to his position within a week. The announcement set off scenes of celebration and frenzied cheering outside the judge’s house in Islamabad, a city that was supposed to have been under lockdown with thousands of police and troops standing guard. The country’s stock exchange also soared.

Mr Gilani said that more than 1,000 lawyers and political activists arrested over the last week as they sought to join a so-called Long March to the capital would be immediately released. He then called for reconciliation between Pakistan’s various political factions.

"I announce the restoration of all deposed judges including Mr Iftikhar Chaudhry according to a promise made by the president of Pakistan and myself," Mr Gilani said.

The concession - which many will see as nothing less than capitulation by a faltering, stumbling government - came as thousands of protesters led by opposition leader Nawaz Sharif - were bearing down on Islamabad to take part in a sit-in outside the parliament building. Mr Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) led the convoy after defying a house arrest order in Lahore.

Earlier, in scenes that underlined Pakistan’s turmoil and deepened international concern about the country’s future, police in Lahore had tried to break up thousands of demonstrators gathered in the centre of Lahore as they prepared to make their way to Islamabad. They fired many rounds of tear gas and plastic bullets in running battles with black-suited lawyers and the government’s political opponents.

"You have seen that the entire country has been turned into a police state. They have blocked all roads, they have used all sorts of unlawful tactics," said Mr Sharif, standing on the steps of his home. "These are the decisive moments."

The increasingly unpopular government headed by President Asif Ali Zardari had been desperate to prevent thousands of lawyers and political opponents taking part in the march to Islamabad. Mr Zardari - opposed to the reinstatement because of fears the judge might reopen corruption charges against him - had ordered the arrest of thousands of lawyers and blocked major roads. However, the demonstrators set off, vowing to go as far as they could. "It doesn’t matter if we get all the way," said Bushra Ahsan, wife of Aitzaz Ahsan, one of the lawyers’ leaders. "We will try."

The decision to reinstate Mr Chaudhry, fired by former president Pervez Musharraf in 2007, will for now defuse the crisis that has gripped the country and triggered fears in the West that the country’s political leaders were being distracted from efforts to confront a growing militancy threatening Pakistan.

However, in the longer term, Mr Zardari’s repression of the protesters and the way in which he begrudgingly made the concession, his back against the wall, will leave him and his Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) politically weakened. By contrast, Mr Sharif has projected an image of strength and stands to gain from leading a successful movement against the president, who has been the focus of mounting popular anger.

"This is a victory for the people of this country," lawyers’ leader Baz Mohammad Kakar said after Mr Gilani’s announcement. "Chaudhry is the first chief justice in the history of Pakistan who has proved himself to be a judge for the people, as a chief justice for the people."

The lawyers’ movement received a boost last month when Mr Sharif threw his full weight behind it after he and his brother, Shahbaz, were banned from elected office by the Supreme Court. Mr Zardari then dismissed the government led by Shahbaz in the Punjab province, the wealthiest in Pakistan and politically the most important. Mr Gilani repeated a pledge first made Saturday to appeal that verdict to the Supreme Court.

In recent days, US and British officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Foreign Secretary David Miliband, had spoken to both Mr Zardari and Mr Sharif, urging them to reach a deal. Today, the US Embassy in Islamabad issued a statement welcoming the development. "This is a statesmanlike decision taken to defuse a serious confrontation, and the apparent removal of this long-standing national issue is a substantial step towards national reconciliation," it said.

The clashes between police and lawyers on Sunday outside Lahore’s High Court and the British-built colonial-era General Post Office echoed those in late 2007 when Mr Musharraf declared a state of emergency and launched a fierce crackdown on his political opponents. Among those being targeted at the time were members of the PPP, who now control the government.

Many of those yesterday being dragged away by police and staggering blindly through clouds of choking tear gas were furious that the people they marched with just 18 months ago were now deploying the same authoritarian tactics used by the military dictatorship.

"Mr Zardari has become a civilian dictator," said Kamran Shafi, a former aide to the president’s late wife, Benazir Bhutto, and one of those waving placards. "Sadly all this is happening because he broke his promises to reinstate the chief justice. I was Benazir’s press secretary and we kept the country going…What is going on now is repression."

Many in the crowd were supporters of Mr Sharif. However, the movement has also garnered support from an assortment of Pakistan’s political parties and civil society. Those adding their support to the lawyers ranged from Islamists whose ultimate aim is the introduction of Sharia law to secular liberal women wearing designer sunglasses.

"The country sees the seriousness of this," said Seema Aziz, a member of the campaign group, Concerned Citizens of Pakistan. "The people here are unarmed but the police are acting as if they are [dealing with] armed invaders."

Yet as it transpired, protestors scored a considerable victory when two senior police officials overseeing the operation resigned their position rather than continue the violent crackdown against demonstrators. The pair were hailed as heroes as the police lines then melted away, clearing the path for demonstrators to start the journey towards Islamabad.