Deal Struck on Pakistan Judges
Saturday, May 3, 2008
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, May 2 -- The coalition government of Pakistan has agreed to reinstate the country's chief justice and 60 other judges deposed last year under a controversial order by President Pervez Musharraf, a move that could threaten Musharraf's tenuous grip on political power.
"I want to inform the entire nation that on Monday, May 12, 2008, all deposed judges will be restored," former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, of the Pakistan Muslim League-N, said Friday during a televised news conference from Lahore.
The announcement came after two days of round-the-clock negotiations in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, that at times exposed the shaky foundation of the political alliance between this country's ruling factions, Sharif's party and the Pakistan People's Party.
Sharif had been a fierce advocate of reinstating the judges without conditions as soon as possible. The co-chair of the Pakistan People's Party, Asif Ali Zardari, who was until very recently Sharif's bitter political foe, had pushed for constitutional changes that would spell out the role of the judiciary more clearly but also strip the president of several powers, including the authority to dissolve Parliament.
On Friday, Sharif said Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry and the other deposed judges will be restored to the bench through a parliamentary resolution in 10 days. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani will then sign an executive order completing the arrangement.
Musharraf did not speak out on the judges Friday, and it was unclear how he might respond to an attempt to restore them to the bench. Sharif shared few details of the proposed resolution but said that the day Musharraf removed the judges was "one of the darkest days in Pakistan's history." He also said he had agreed with Zardari's request to allow the current judges to remain on the job, which will expand the number of Supreme Court judges to more than 20. Zardari offered no public comment on the judges Friday.
A senior Pakistani government official familiar with the negotiations said the compromise agreement between Sharif and Zardari also calls for setting a five-year limit on judges' tenure, a move that would effectively cut short the chief justice's term by three years. It was unclear why either side would seek term limits.
Talks over the restoration of the judges stalled this week after the coalition missed an April 30 deadline to announce a resolution on the issue. Yet members of both parties said Friday that they remain united in support of restoring Pakistan's judiciary.
"The coalition government is far more important than a single issue," said Farah Ispahani, a member of Parliament and spokeswoman for the Pakistan People's Party. "We always were in agreement that the justices should be restored. We just had a difference of opinion with Mr. Sharif and his party on how it should be done."
The chief justice has been critical of Musharraf and has been especially vocal about the disappearances of hundreds of Pakistanis since the country joined U.S. counterterrorism efforts in 2001. Chaudhry waged an aggressive campaign to force Pakistan's intelligence agencies to disclose the whereabouts of missing terrorism suspects and political prisoners.
Musharraf fired Chaudhry in March of last year, but in July the Supreme Court reinstated the chief justice. Four months later, Musharraf fired Chaudhry again and placed him under house arrest after declaring emergency rule. Chaudhry's removal was seen by many as a preemptive strike by Musharraf to head off any legal challenges to his presidency. The power struggle between the two men ignited an unprecedented furor across the country that resulted in widespread protests by lawyers and a wave of violence.
Public anger over the state of Pakistan's tattered judiciary in part led to the ouster of Musharraf's party from power in February elections. Gillani, the newly elected prime minister, then ordered Chaudhry's release from house arrest and freed five other judges.
Maj. Gen. Rashid Quereshi, Musharraf's top spokesman, said in an interview Friday that the proposed parliamentary resolution will not be sufficient for full restoration of the judges. He said the president's legal advisers and Pakistan's attorney general have determined that a constitutional amendment would be needed to return the judges to the bench. Such an amendment would require a two-thirds majority vote of the National Assembly and Senate combined. Securing that support would be difficult, given that Musharraf's Pakistan Muslim League-Q faction holds a majority in the Senate.
Sen. Tariq Azim Khan, chief spokesman for Musharraf's faction, said that his party is prepared to support the judges' reinstatement but that the parliamentary resolution, if passed, would not be "legally binding."
The judicial process "has been so bogged down it cannot be changed by a simple parliamentary resolution," he said. "By just putting back a few judges, it will not solve the problem or cure the rot that has set into the judicial system."