March 26, 2008

Filed under: NEW GOVERNMENT AFTER MARCH 24-2008 — civilsocietypakistan @ 3:04 pm
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Pakistan Premier Frees Judges

Leader’s First Step Defies Musharraf

Yousaf Raza Gillani, a close associate of slain former premier Benazir Bhutto, addresses Pakistan's Parliament after lawmakers elected him prime minister.

Yousaf Raza Gillani, a close associate of slain former premier Benazir Bhutto, addresses Pakistan’s Parliament after lawmakers elected him prime minister. (Associated Press)

Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 25, 2008; Page A01

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, March 24 — Pakistan‘s newly elected prime minister ordered the release Monday of top judges who had been under house arrest since last year, a dramatic challenge to the U.S.-backed president, Pervez Musharraf.

Moments after being confirmed as prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gillani declared, before a raucous Parliament now controlled by the president’s opponents, that the judges would be freed immediately. The move was a step toward reinstating the country’s once-independent judiciary, whose silencing by Musharraf fueled the opposition’s pro-democracy campaign.

Hundreds of jubilant Pakistanis converged on the Islamabad home of the detained former chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, as police began removing barricades and barbed-wire fences. Banging drums, waving flags and shouting, “Go, Musharraf, go!” the crowd massed beneath the balcony of Chaudhry’s house and urged him to make his first public address in more than four months.

Chaudhry, who was fired last year when he and other Supreme Court justices refused to accept Musharraf’s suspension of the constitution and declaration of emergency, subsequently appeared on the balcony to greet the throng.

“I and my colleagues were unconstitutionally confined under house arrest,” said Chaudhry, accompanied by Aitzaz Ahsan, president of the Supreme Court bar association. “I am thankful to the whole nation — lawyers, civil society, everyone. Your great struggle for the constitution and the rule of law will continue.”

Gillani, 55, was a close associate of Benazir Bhutto, the opposition leader who was assassinated in December. After lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to name him prime minister, he strode to the front of the assembly amid boisterous anti-Musharraf chants. He shook hands with Bhutto’s tearful son and political heir apparent, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, then struggled for several minutes to be heard as members of Parliament stood and pounded their tables.

“God willing, I assure you as the leader of this house that we will strengthen this institution,” Gillani said. “We have spent a long time in opposition. We came here after a long struggle.”

Restoration of the judiciary in Pakistan has been at the center of a battle between Musharraf’s government and the nation’s leading opposition parties. The former chief justice was reinstated by the Supreme Court in July, but Musharraf reversed that decision through an executive order four months later. Chaudhry, his family and five other Supreme Court justices had been under house arrest since November, when Musharraf disbarred about 60 judges to head off potential legal challenges to his rule.

The moves set off a constitutional crisis that prompted a firestorm of protests by lawyers across the country and stoked support for the opposition, which swept to power in February elections.

In addition to ordering the judges’ release, Gillani called for a U.N. investigation into the assassination of Bhutto, who was killed Dec. 27 in a gun and bomb attack on her motorcade as she was leaving a political rally in Rawalpindi.

Gillani, who spent five years in prison on corruption charges lodged by Musharraf’s government, also demanded a parliamentary resolution to apologize for the 1979 hanging of Bhutto’s father, former president and prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

Musharraf is scheduled to swear in Gillani as prime minister on Tuesday. Gillani then is expected to start naming cabinet ministers.

Gillani’s party, the Pakistan People’s Party, and the party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif have vowed to pass a resolution to fully reinstate the dismissed judges within 30 days of the formation of the new government. That move could lead to a major confrontation with the president. Musharraf could face charges of treason — an offense punishable by death — should the judges be restored.

But Musharraf’s attorney general has said the judges can be reinstated only if the constitutional changes introduced by Musharraf last year are repealed. That would require a two-thirds majority vote of the combined National Assembly and Senate.

“This is the beginning of a new era in Pakistan,” said Ali Sajid, 45, a university professor who was among the crowd outside Chaudhry’s house. “We are excited that the judiciary is free and has been released from the clutches of the United States of America. They should allow us to determine our own future.” He said the United States and Britain “have no right to interfere in our politics.”

U.S. support for Musharraf in the face of the year-long judicial crisis and growing concerns about Pakistan’s involvement in the U.S.-led war on terrorism in the region have provoked sharp discontent, particularly among the country’s burgeoning middle class. U.S. officials in recent months have shied away from directly supporting the judges’ reinstatement, saying only that the decision to restore the judiciary rests with Parliament.

Musharraf’s opponents see the release of the judges as the first step toward the restoration of an independent judiciary and a sound rebuke of U.S. support for his rule of more than eight years.

The judges’ release appeared to bring relief to the hundreds of police officers who have stood guard along the road to Chaudhry’s home for months. Several officers shook hands with the same protesters at whom they had lobbed tear gas a week ago. Some smiled and laughed as they helped black-coated lawyers pick their way across the small field of barbed wire lining the road.

“The prime minister has given his order and has spoken it on the floor of Parliament,” said one officer, who declined to give his name for fear of losing his job. “We all are tired of doing this. We knew it was wrong, but all the same it’s a job requirement. We had to follow orders.”


1 Comment »

  1. A Hope they will be taken dicession as sooner as possible.


    Comment by Muhammad Moosa Rind — March 27, 2008 @ 7:32 am | Reply

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