Pakistan's lawyers strike over judicial appointments made by President Zardari

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari (Ibrahim Usta - AP)
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By Karin Brulliard and Shaiq Hussain
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 16, 2010

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- A fresh standoff between Pakistan's judiciary and its weak government simmered Monday, as lawyers staged a nationwide strike and political prognosticators warned of instability in the wobbly democracy.

Black-suited lawyers swarmed the high court building in this capital city, vowing to defend the court system in a dispute over judicial appointments made by President Asif Ali Zardari that went against the advice of the nation's top judge. The Pakistani Supreme Court deemed the nominations unconstitutional on Saturday and blocked them, setting the stage for the latest in a series of confrontations between the nation's popular chief justice and unpopular president.

The tensions come as Pakistan wages a fierce battle against Islamist insurgents and is on the verge of renewing talks with its bitter enemy, India.

The opposition's most prominent leader, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, said the judicial appointments made Zardari the "greatest threat to democracy."

The ruling party has played down the controversy, and there have been no signs of chaos in the nuclear-armed nation. But related clashes have caused standstills -- and fueled political change -- in the past.

A lawyer protest movement in 2007 eventually led to the resignation of President Pervez Musharraf, who had fired Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry and other judges. Last year, threats of a lawyers' march led Zardari to reinstate Chaudhry, whose court went on to strike down an ordinance that shielded Zardari and other government officials from graft charges.

The rift this time centers on a constitutional question. Zardari appointed judges to the Supreme Court and to the Lahore High Court who were not the candidates suggested by Chaudhry. In response, the Supreme Court hastily convened a three-judge panel that suspended the order, saying Zardari was constitutionally obliged to consult the chief justice. Legal experts differ on that interpretation.

The court said it would hold a hearing Thursday on the issue, and senior officials in Zardari's party have said they would abide by the court's ruling. Analysts said Monday that while the clash did not yet appear to be spinning toward crisis, it amounted to a distracting clash of egos, which Pakistan hardly needs.

"The government's thinking is: They've been pushed around by this Supreme Court a bit too much," said Ayaz Amir, a columnist and commentator who represents Sharif's party in Parliament. The court "thinks that Pakistan is in a mess, institutions are not working, there is corruption all over, and it has befallen them to set right the state of affairs."

One difference this time around, Amir noted, is that the lawyers' movement -- which two years ago was a massive, mostly unified groundswell of protest -- now appears fractured. Key leaders from that period have stayed out of the fray, and the gathering in Islamabad on Monday had a far lower turnout than organizers had predicted.

"The judiciary is threatened once again by those who talk about democracy and being democrats but are not different from dictators," said Muhammad Akhtar Anjum, one young lawyer outside the Supreme Court, rejecting the notion of a divided movement. "We will force the dictators in this regime to run, the way we did with Musharraf."

Hussain is a special correspondent.


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