Pakistan’s court reinstates top judge

July 21, 2007 - 0:0

ISLAMABAD (Agencies)- Pakistan's Supreme Court reinstated the country's top judge on Friday in an historic ruling that dealt a blow to President Pervez Musharraf, who had suspended him four months earlier.

Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry became a symbol of resistance to General Musharraf after refusing to quit in the face of pressure from the president and his intelligence chiefs, and was lionized by supporters in rallies round the country. ""The reference has been set aside and the chief justice has been reinstated,"" Justice Khalil-ur-Rehman Ramday, the head of the 13-member bench, said at the end of the two-month-old case. The decision to reinstate Chaudhry was unanimous, but the decision to quash the charges against him was carried by a 10-3 majority. The ruling is probably the biggest challenge to Musharraf's dominance since he seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999. It could further complicate his bid to win a new five-year presidential term this fall and comes at a time when Islamic militants are on the offensive. Lawyers celebrated outside the court, chanting ""Go, Musharraf, go!"" The verdict also prompted celebrations among gatherings of hundreds of lawyers in major cities, including Karachi, Multan, Faisalabad, Quetta, Peshawar and Rawalpindi. ""Thank God, we got justice,"" said Ahsan Bhund, president of the Lahore High Court Bar Association, as he marched on a main city road with 500 other lawyers. However, the spokesman for the President Mr. Rashid Qureshi said the judgment of the Supreme Court will be honored, respected and adhered to. Musharraf's spokesman when asked for his reaction over the Supreme Court decision told APP that “the President respects the decision of the Supreme Court. He said “the President has stated earlier that any judgment the Supreme Court arrives at will be honored, respected and adhered to.” Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz also called for accepting the judgment, reassuring government’s firm resolve to uphold rule of law and democratic order in the country. The Prime Minister said he always maintained that the decision of the Honorable Supreme Court must be accepted by all sections of the people, including the government itself. It is in this spirit that his government and he expects that the decision shall be accepted by all shades of public opinion and by every Pakistani irrespective of his or her views and affiliations. Chief Justice Chaudhry's March 9 suspension had sparked protests by lawyers and opposition parties that have grown into a powerful pro-democracy movement just as Musharraf faces a rising tide of Islamic militancy. The lawyers swarmed around the justice's chief counsel, Aitzaz Ahsan, as he told reporters that the case alleging misconduct by Chaudhry had been ""quashed."" ""He has been restored and it is a victory for the entire nation,"" Ahsan said. A top Pakistani human rights activists declared the verdict as an assertion of the independence of the judiciary and a victory for civil society. ""It's very clear that guns and intimidation will not bow down civil society or civil institutions of Pakistan,"" said Asma Jehangir, chair of the nongovernment Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. 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 has no political motive and that Musharraf had little choice under the constitution but to suspend Chaudhry. However, opponents accuse Musharraf of plotting to remove an independent-minded judge to forestall legal challenges to his plan to ask lawmakers for another term. The assertion of judicial independence in a country long dominated by its military will likely be widely viewed as an important step toward democracy in Pakistan, but the setback for Musharraf casts new uncertainty over the political future of this key ally of the West in fighting terrorism. Since suspending Chaudhry, Musharraf's support has been crumbling both among voters and his political allies, particularly after he came out in support of a pro-government party widely believed to be behind violent clashes against Chaudhry supporters in Karachi in May that killed over 40 people. More recently, Pakistan's deteriorating security situation has overshadowed the judicial crisis. Suicide attacks, bombings and fighting between security forces and Islamic militants has killed about 290 people since clashes between the army and radicals in Islamabad's Red Mosque broke out July 3