In Pakistan, Elation Over Restoration of Judges

The U.S. government welcomed moves by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to restore the former chief justice of the Supreme Court. Zardari faced increasing pressure from a broad coalition of opponents who demanded the reinstatement of Pakistan's independent judiciary.
By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 17, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, March 16 -- They came carrying children and cakes, tootling bagpipes and pounding drums, waving banners from half a dozen political parties and wearing the garb of peasants and politicians.

From dawn to dark, a tide of well-wishers streamed toward the Islamabad home of Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, the deposed chief justice of Pakistan's Supreme Court, whom the government on Monday agreed to reinstate after it was unable to quell protests by political, legal and civic activists demanding his restoration.

Chaudhry, 60, was removed from office twice in 2007 by Pakistan's then-military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who considered Chaudhry a threat to his authority. The dismissals sparked a vigorous lawyers' protest campaign, and contributed to Musharraf's downfall. The current civilian government of President Asif Ali Zardari had pledged to reinstate Chaudhry and other deposed judges last year, but resisted doing so until the nationwide demonstrations finally forced Zardari to back down.

Zardari is said to fear that Chaudhry could reopen corruption cases against him and overturn an amnesty from Musharraf that allowed Zardari to return from exile in 2007. But aides to the former chief justice said he does not want to create more fissures in Pakistan, which is already facing an Islamist insurgency and a badly declining economy.

In a grim disruption of the celebratory mood in the capital, a suicide bomber detonated a passenger van in nearby Rawalpindi late Monday night, killing himself and 13 other people and injuring 19. Police said the bomber, a teenage boy, exploded the van in a busy urban market. The attack was immediately condemned by government and opposition leaders.

Earlier in the day, there had been an infectious, giddy feeling of hope among the people who milled on the lawn of Chaudhry's official residence, a site once sealed off by barbed wire and barricades to keep the iconoclastic jurist under house arrest. Many said they felt that now, for perhaps the first time, justice would have a chance to take root in their impoverished, socially segregated society.

"This is the end of feudal rule in Pakistan," proclaimed Anjum Shehzad, 35, a property dealer from central Punjab province. "Every day, the common people in our country face injustice in the courts, at hospitals, in police stations. But with Justice Iftikhar back, they will be able to raise their voices and demand fair treatment."

Around him on the crowded lawn swirled a pageant of Pakistani diversity: bagpipers in kilts, women in veils, lawyers in black suits, drummers in vivid costumes, tribal elders in turbans, political figures in starched white tunics.

"Allah has blessed us today," said Jawad Hasan, 25, a bearded Islamic law student wearing a skullcap. "There is no contradiction between Islam and the rule of law. It is our hope that from this day, there will be a new Pakistan of peace and justice."

Similar celebrations took place in the cities of Lahore, Peshawar and Quetta, where members of bar associations and political parties had braved the threat of arrest and tear gas to organize a "long march" to the capital Monday. The protest was called off after Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani announced to the nation in a 6 a.m. televised address that Chaudhry and the other judges would be reinstated.

In political terms, the winner of the showdown was former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, a longtime rival of Zardari's who championed the lawyers' cause after Zardari used the courts to engineer Sharif's removal from politics last month, and fired his brother as chief minister of Punjab province.

Although still barred from holding office, Nawaz Sharif emerged as a national hero this week. He exhorted his supporters to take to the streets, evaded house arrest and then led an all-night protest caravan toward Islamabad. When Zardari finally capitulated on the judges after a late-night meeting with Gillani and Pakistan's army chief, Sharif's stature soared.

But the man of the hour Monday was the soft-spoken and publicity shy jurist from Baluchistan province, whose independent nature infuriated Musharraf -- and whose determination to locate terrorism suspects who had "disappeared" from the legal system while in official custody alarmed the United States. He had already become a nationwide cause celebre after he was first deposed almost exactly two years ago.

Chaudhry was briefly reinstated in the summer of 2007, prompting a celebration similar to the one Monday. But months later, Musharraf, fearing Chaudhry's court would judge him ineligible to serve another term as president, suspended the constitution, fired Chaudhry and stacked the court with loyalists. Musharraf's appointees were among the most potent vestiges of Pakistan's decade under military rule.

As an endless stream of people were ushered by policemen through Chaudhry's parlor Monday, pumping his hand and offering congratulatory gifts, Chaudhry looked tired and a bit dazed. He said little but emerged once on his front steps to briefly address the TV cameras. "I congratulate the entire nation," he said. "This is their success and the credit goes to them."

The government said Chaudhry would be officially reinstated March 21, the same day the current chief justice appointed by Musharraf is scheduled to retire. But it was not clear whether he would be allowed to serve his entire term, which ends in 2013, as his supporters are demanding.

Despite Chaudhry's celebrity status, many people interviewed at celebrations in Lahore and Islamabad on Monday stressed the institutional and political significance of his reinstatement for Pakistani's democratic future, rather than his personal qualifications or judicial views.

"I feel so proud, because our long struggle for an independent judiciary has borne fruit," said Shauqat Saddiq, 30, a lawyer from Rawalpindi who came with his wife and two young sons to congratulate Chaudhry. "We fought for only one goal: the rule of law. Whoever sits in the justice's seat, this has been a victory of the principle, not the person."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company