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.
Since his suspension, Chaudhry has spoken at progressively larger demonstrations across the country as he became the center of a broader movement to restore democratic, civilian rule to Pakistan.
Chaudhry also challenged his suspension in the courts. On Friday, the Supreme Court ruled that the suspension was "illegal" and that he should be allowed to return to work immediately.
When the decision was read, hundreds of black-suited lawyers who had packed the courtroom all day erupted in an ecstatic celebration. They cheered wildly, climbed onto each other's shoulders and flashed victory signs as others recorded the moment on camera phones. "Go, Musharraf, go!" they chanted as they marched out of the courthouse.
"Everyone thinks that there's no justice in the country, that only generals get to decide everything," said another Chaudhry attorney, Ali Ahmed Kurd, as he shook with excitement. "But the court today was very brave. This is the first time that the justices have told us a government of generals will be no more. General Musharraf should resign."
The celebration spilled into the street in front of the Supreme Court, and late in the afternoon supporters traveled to Chaudhry's house in a long convoy of honking vehicles to congratulate him. Looking slightly disoriented by all the attention, Chaudhry briefly emerged but returned without speaking after waving to the crowd and eating a celebratory sweet.
Victory parties also broke out in other cities across the country. "Sadly enough, the judiciary has been a toothless institution all its life. But by today's decision, it has showed its teeth to the powerful institution of the military," said a jubilant Naqib Ahmad, 30, in the northwestern city of Peshawar. "I have never been so proud of being a lawyer as I feel today."
Even as the celebrations wore on into the night, the attacks that have shadowed Pakistan all week continued. A suicide bomber killed four people Friday at a checkpoint in North Waziristan, where the government is trying to revive a 10-month-old pact that disintegrated last weekend. Since insurgents broke the deal, Pakistan has been hit with daily strikes.
Chaudhry's supporters have been among the victims of recent violence. On Tuesday, a suicide bomber blew himself up at a rally in Islamabad where the judge was expected to speak, killing 18. In May, more than 40 people were killed in Karachi at another pro-Chaudhry rally when his supporters came under attack by members of a party that is aligned with the government.
Special correspondent Imtiaz Ali in Peshawar contributed to this report.