High Court Reinstates Pakistan's Chief Judge

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By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 21, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, July 20 -- Pakistan's high court on Friday delivered a stinging rebuke to President Pervez Musharraf, reinstating the country's chief justice four months after Musharraf tried to oust him and jeopardizing the president's plan to hold on to power.

The decision was hailed as a landmark victory by advocates for returning Pakistan to civilian-led, democratic rule, who said it amounts to an unprecedented act of defiance in a country where the judiciary has long bowed to military might.

Since his suspension in March, the judge, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, has been touring the country and speaking about the dangers of despotism. He will now lead the court at a time when it is likely to hear challenges to Musharraf's plans for extending his tenure, which have been assailed as antidemocratic.

After eight years in office, Musharraf's grip on power has been weakening, and Friday's decision adds significantly to his troubles. With his popularity in decline, he faces strong challenges from moderates who want to defeat him in elections, as well as from insurgents who have killed more than 160 people in recent days with a devastating run of strikes.

He has also faced greater criticism from the United States, which traditionally has given him strong support but now blames his government for allowing al-Qaeda to reorganize in remote tribal areas.

Musharraf's term ends this year. This week, he said he intends to be elected to a new, five-year term by a parliament that is packed with supporters and about to expire. Musharraf, who came to power in a coup, also indicated he plans to stay on as army chief and keep his uniform, a garment that carries huge significance in Pakistan because it represents support from the country's most influential institution -- its military.

Musharraf's opponents have charged that both proposals are constitutionally dubious and say that Friday's ruling shows the judiciary is willing to torpedo his plans.

Chaudhry's attorney Aitzaz Ahsan praised the decision as a victory for justice. "It's a big blow to the Musharraf regime" and "a good omen" for Pakistan, Ahsan said.

Government officials were caught off-guard by the decision to quash the accusations against Chaudhry. They had been prepared for his reinstatement but believed the court would leave open some of the charges and thereby compromise his ability to serve.

The state information minister, Tariq Azim Khan, acknowledged disappointment in the decision but said the government would accept it.

"We believe and hope that cases that come before him will be decided based on merit and he will not bear any grudges," Khan said.

Chaudhry, who had demonstrated an independent streak during his two years leading the court, was suspended by Musharraf on March 9 because of alleged abuses of office. He denied the charges and said in an affidavit that top intelligence agency officials unsuccessfully tried to force him to resign.

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