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Pakistan's judiciary threatens government stability

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Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 12, 2010; 6:29 PM

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - After this country's then-military dictator deposed the Supreme Court chief justice in 2007, a boisterous movement of protesting lawyers took to the streets and ushered in the return of democracy. Now that same court may be poised to bring about a premature end to Pakistan's elected government.

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Since its December judgment striking down an amnesty that shielded President Asif Ali Zardari and other officials from old criminal allegations, the top court has pressed the government on corruption, in particular a dated money-laundering case against Zardari. The stakes have risen as repeated government delays have stoked frustration within the army and the political opposition. Another showdown is scheduled for Wednesday, when the court could hold the prime minister in contempt or indicate that it will reconsider Zardari's presidential immunity from prosecution.

The standoff has cemented the Supreme Court's position as a central player in Pakistan's nascent democracy. But it has also highlighted questions about the solidity of that system.

To many here, the drama represents progress: In a nation with a history of military coups, an independent judiciary has emerged as the major threat to the unpopular government. To others, including some government critics and lawyers' movement stalwarts, the court and its chief justice are on a warpath against Zardari that threatens a fragile democracy that needs an elected government - even a bad one - to complete a term in office.

"This judge and the court have embarked upon politics," said lawyer Khurram Latif Khosa, whose father, also a lawyer, advises Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani. "The lawyers who were chanting slogans in their favor are now burning effigies of their idols."

Pakistan's stability is vital to the United States, which depends on this South Asian nation to support the war in Afghanistan and combat a vigorous Taliban insurgency on its own soil. U.S. officials express concern that the government's foot-dragging is weakening its credibility and distracting it from urgent issues such as the fallout from recent flooding and a collapsing economy.

Some analysts say the standoff is unlikely to imperil the democratic order. They call it just another act in the performance art of Pakistani politics, in which protagonists jockey for power while the masses await leadership that will improve their lives. The government insists that the cases against Zardari were politically motivated and that a hostile media are sensationalizing the court's wrangling.

From 2007 to 2009, scores of lawyers rallied for the restoration of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry. He was removed by military dictator Pervez Musharraf but not restored by Zardari's civilian government until several months into its administration.

The lawyers' movement dissolved after it achieved its goal, and the lower judiciary is still plagued by complaints about corruption, sluggishness and bias. But the Supreme Court has surfaced as one of Pakistan's most respected institutions. After decades of deference to presidents, prime ministers and, especially, military rulers, it has doggedly pursued cases involving the Zardari government.

"That the problems of governance were not highlighted in the past seems to suggest that the court is more aggressive on a democratic government than it was on an authoritarian government," said Munir Malik, a former president of the Supreme Court Bar Association. "But that's the way to move forward."

The court has also gained popularity by regularly taking up the grievances of ordinary citizens, often after Chaudhry has read about them in the newspaper. Small and thickly mustached, Chaudhry ranks in polls as one of the nation's most esteemed figures.

"He is the only person standing firm against the unlawful practices of the government," said Ibrahim Rasheed, among a group of lawyers sipping tea recently at the Islamabad bar association office.


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