By Zarar Khan
Monday, March 23, 2009
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, March 22 -- The Pakistani chief justice whose ouster spurred waves of protests that led to a president's downfall returned to work Sunday, while the ruling party and opposition resolved to cooperate despite their clash over his reinstatement.
Any reconciliation among the major political factions could spell relief for U.S. and other Western officials who want the nuclear-armed country to focus on eradicating al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters based along its border with Afghanistan.
However, a leadership dispute in Pakistan's most powerful province could still yield partisan wrangling -- and more distraction.
Hundreds of lawyers and activists who agitated for Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry's reinstatement gathered outside his home for a ceremonial flag-raising Sunday morning. They carried balloons and threw rose petals, calling his return a milestone for democracy.
"It is a day of victory for the people of Pakistan," said Aitzaz Ahsan, a leader of the lawyer's movement.
Chaudhry formally returned to office after midnight following the Saturday retirement of the chief justice who had replaced him.
Former president Pervez Musharraf removed Chaudhry in 2007 after the independent-minded judge began examining cases that could have embarrassed the military ruler and threatened his claim to office.
The justice's ouster sparked a series of lawyer-led protests, which pressured Musharraf to allow elections that brought his foes to power in early 2008. Musharraf resigned last summer.
His successor, Asif Ali Zardari, promised to reinstate the chief justice but kept stalling, apparently over fears that Chaudhry would examine a deal with Musharraf that granted Zardari immunity from prosecution over corruption allegations.
Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, head of the second-biggest party, joined the opposition because of Zardari's failure to reinstate Chaudhry. Zardari gave in last week and restored the chief justice after activist lawyers and opposition supporters began a march toward the capital, where they planned to stage a sit-in at Parliament.
U.S. envoys, intent on convincing Pakistan to stay focused on fighting Islamist extremism, met with the president and prime minister ahead of the decision to reinstate Chaudhry.
Sharif was further angered after a Supreme Court ruling last month barred him and his brother Shahbaz from holding elected office.
After the ruling, Zardari dismissed the Punjab provincial government headed by Shahbaz, putting the regional governor in charge in what the Sharifs said was a blatant power grab.