Pakistan Premier Frees Judges

Yousaf Raza Gillani, a close associate of slain former premier Benazir Bhutto, addresses Pakistan's Parliament after lawmakers elected him prime minister.
Yousaf Raza Gillani, a close associate of slain former premier Benazir Bhutto, addresses Pakistan's Parliament after lawmakers elected him prime minister. (Associated Press)
By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 25, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, March 24 -- Pakistan's newly elected prime minister ordered the release Monday of top judges who had been under house arrest since last year, a dramatic challenge to the U.S.-backed president, Pervez Musharraf.

Moments after being confirmed as prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gillani declared, before a raucous Parliament now controlled by the president's opponents, that the judges would be freed immediately. The move was a step toward reinstating the country's once-independent judiciary, whose silencing by Musharraf fueled the opposition's pro-democracy campaign.

Hundreds of jubilant Pakistanis converged on the Islamabad home of the detained former chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, as police began removing barricades and barbed-wire fences. Banging drums, waving flags and shouting, "Go, Musharraf, go!" the crowd massed beneath the balcony of Chaudhry's house and urged him to make his first public address in more than four months.

Chaudhry, who was fired last year when he and other Supreme Court justices refused to accept Musharraf's suspension of the constitution and declaration of emergency, subsequently appeared on the balcony to greet the throng.

"I and my colleagues were unconstitutionally confined under house arrest," said Chaudhry, accompanied by Aitzaz Ahsan, president of the Supreme Court bar association. "I am thankful to the whole nation -- lawyers, civil society, everyone. Your great struggle for the constitution and the rule of law will continue."

Gillani, 55, was a close associate of Benazir Bhutto, the opposition leader who was assassinated in December. After lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to name him prime minister, he strode to the front of the assembly amid boisterous anti-Musharraf chants. He shook hands with Bhutto's tearful son and political heir apparent, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, then struggled for several minutes to be heard as members of Parliament stood and pounded their tables.

"God willing, I assure you as the leader of this house that we will strengthen this institution," Gillani said. "We have spent a long time in opposition. We came here after a long struggle."

Restoration of the judiciary in Pakistan has been at the center of a battle between Musharraf's government and the nation's leading opposition parties. The former chief justice was reinstated by the Supreme Court in July, but Musharraf reversed that decision through an executive order four months later. Chaudhry, his family and five other Supreme Court justices had been under house arrest since November, when Musharraf disbarred about 60 judges to head off potential legal challenges to his rule.

The moves set off a constitutional crisis that prompted a firestorm of protests by lawyers across the country and stoked support for the opposition, which swept to power in February elections.

In addition to ordering the judges' release, Gillani called for a U.N. investigation into the assassination of Bhutto, who was killed Dec. 27 in a gun and bomb attack on her motorcade as she was leaving a political rally in Rawalpindi.

Gillani, who spent five years in prison on corruption charges lodged by Musharraf's government, also demanded a parliamentary resolution to apologize for the 1979 hanging of Bhutto's father, former president and prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

Musharraf is scheduled to swear in Gillani as prime minister on Tuesday. Gillani then is expected to start naming cabinet ministers.

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