Pakistan’s chief justice resumed his official duties Saturday, a day after this Islamic nation’s powerful military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf lost a bid to fire him, the biggest setback to the general’s eight-year rule.
The reinstatement of Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry on Friday has clouded the political future of a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism just as the country faces growing violence by Islamic militants.
In a landmark ruling, Supreme Court judges voted unanimously to restore Chaudhry and 10-3 to quash charges of misconduct that Musharraf had sent to a separate judicial tribunal.
The surprise verdict on an appeal from Chaudhry — many expected the court to reinstate him while letting the tribunal’s investigation continue — was widely hailed as a democratic breakthrough in a country dominated by the military for most of its 60-year history.
It also triggered fresh calls for Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 military coup and has been reluctant to restore civilian rule, to step down.
Cheers from black-suited lawyers, who have led mass protests against Musharraf since he suspended Chaudhry on March 9, reverberated through the high-roofed courtroom after presiding Judge Khalil-ur-Rehman Ramday announced that the judge’s suspension was “illegal” and set aside the charges against him.
Musharraf accepts verdict
Chaudhry himself has made no comment, and Musharraf has accepted the verdict, although he didn’t give any indication of his next move.
“The president respects the decision of the Supreme Court,” his spokesman, Rashid Qureshi, was quoted as saying by the state-run Associated Press of Pakistan. “The president has stated earlier that any judgment the Supreme Court arrives at will be honored, respected and adhered to.”
Washington’s response struck a similar tone.
State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said the reinstatement “respects the rule of law” and praised the fact the court was “capable of making independent decisions.”
Musharraf’s defeat prompted jubilation among gatherings of hundreds of lawyers in major cities including Karachi, Multan, Faisalabad, Quetta, Peshawar and Rawalpindi.
Rally urges Musharraf to quit
On Saturday, hundreds of lawyers again rallied in Islamabad and Lahore, chanting slogans in favor of Chaudhry, and urging Musharraf to resign.
Pressure has mounted on Musharraf to quit since Friday, with opposition asking him to step down.
Exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto called the Chaudhry ruling one of the most remarkable judgments in the country’s history and said it has weakened Musharraf politically.
The movement — joined by opposition parties — in support of Chaudhry had turned into a “struggle against dictatorship, (for the) restoration of the Constitution and for supremacy of the Parliament,” she said in a statement.
Musharraf suspended Chaudhry for allegedly pulling rank to secure a police job for his son and enjoying unwarranted privileges such as the use of government aircraft.
The government insists the case had no political motive.
However, critics suspected Musharraf of plotting to remove an independent-minded judge to forestall legal challenges to his plan to ask lawmakers for another five-year term.
Recently, Pakistan’s deteriorating security situation has overshadowed the judicial crisis. Suicide attacks, bombings and fighting between security forces and Islamic militants have killed about 290 people since clashes between the army and radicals in Islamabad’s Red Mosque broke out July 3. On Tuesday, a suicide bombing killed 18 people at a planned rally for Chaudhry in the capital.