By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 27, 2008
ISLAMABAD, April 26 -- After weeks of deliberation, Pakistan's newly formed coalition government appears to have reached an impasse over its month-old promise to reinstate dozens of judges fired last year by President Pervez Musharraf.
Restoration of the judiciary has been a key issue since November, when Musharraf dismissed about 60 judges and placed several prominent judges and lawyers under house arrest to head off potential legal challenges to his rule. The move prompted protests across the country, and the judges' reinstatement became a rallying cry of the two leading opposition parties, which were swept into power in February parliamentary elections.
Shortly after the vote, the leaders of the two parties vowed to return the judges to the bench in a public declaration viewed by many here as a direct challenge to Musharraf. Known as the Murree Declaration, the agreement called for Parliament to pass a resolution reinstating all the judges within 30 days of the new government's swearing-in.
But the coalition government suspended its first parliamentary session Friday. With an April 30 deadline looming for a decision on the judges, Parliament will have to reconvene for a special session while debate on the issue continues between the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-N faction, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, and Asif Ali Zardari, co-chairman of the ruling Pakistan People's Party.
The National Assembly is widely expected to call for an extension of its session to resolve the judiciary dispute this week.
Despite differences over how to go about reinstating the judges, Sharif and Zardari remained publicly optimistic that a decision was imminent.
"There is a consensus on the restoration of the judges," Sharif told reporters Saturday in Islamabad, the capital. "As per the agreement of the Murree Declaration, I think it will be possible."
At issue are the fine points of a package of constitutional changes that would not only strip the president of several powers, including the authority to dissolve Parliament, but also reinstate Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry. The justice, a fierce critic of the Musharraf military government, was suspended in March 2007 but reinstated by the Supreme Court in July. He was fired and placed under house arrest on Nov. 3 after Musharraf declared emergency rule. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani released Chaudhry from house arrest the day he took office in March.
Chaudhry's term is set to end in 2013, but Parliament is debating whether the resolution on the judges should shorten the terms of high court justices, which could effectively lead to an earlier retirement.
Chaudhry's ouster sparked a constitutional crisis that transformed the chief justice into a folk hero and thrust the political parties that supported his reinstatement into the center of power. The conflict over the judges provoked strong responses from thousands of lawyers, who have repeatedly clashed with police during protests across Pakistan in the past year.
"Out there, people are very emotional about this issue, and if they think they can get away with not reinstating the chief justice, they are mistaken," said Athar Minallah, a leading activist in the lawyers' movement in Islamabad. "It would be very difficult for them to go against that will. If they want to eliminate Iftikhar Chaudhry, that would be a disaster for them. There are other judges, but people believe that this issue is related to him. They don't even know the names of the other judges."
Governments around the world have called for Chaudhry's reinstatement. But the White House, a longtime supporter of Musharraf, has demurred, saying that restoration of the judiciary is an "internal matter" that must be decided by Pakistan's government. That stance has prompted strong criticism from many in Pakistan, including Chaudhry's attorney and president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, Aitzaz Ahsan.
"The Americans want Chaudhry out despite the fact that Pervez Musharraf is the most hated man in Pakistan and Chaudhry is arguably the most popular man in Pakistan," Ahsan said in an interview Saturday. "American policy is still one-man specific. Unfortunately, they maintain only one number in Pakistan, and unfortunately they have the wrong number."