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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 March 2007, 12:02 GMT
Between a rock and a hard place
By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Islamabad

Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry
Mr Chaudhry took a tough stance against official misdemeanours

There are growing signs that Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, may have landed himself between a rock and a hard place.

He has been at pains to explain how and why he suspended Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry. But the unrest in the legal community has continued to grow.

There are indications that the situation may flare up into a wider crisis just ahead of the general elections, due later this year.

According to an official handout on 9 March, Gen Musharraf "restrained" the chief justice through an executive order from performing his functions, and sent a case of alleged misconduct and misuse of powers against him to the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC), which oversees the conduct of judges.

The legal community went up in arms, with some political groups joining in to exert pressure on the government to back off.

They accused the government of trying to subdue the judiciary before legal battles erupted over such questions as Gen Musharraf's re-election - whether or not it should precede the general elections, and whether he could continue as the army chief.

Gen Musharraf's challenge lies in defusing the situation in the short run, and ensuring for himself another five years as both president and army chief in the long run.

Apology

In the short run, the government appears to have decided to interject long intervals between the judicial council hearings, hoping to take the steam out of the lawyers' campaign.

The assumption is that a prolonged boycott of the courts by lawyers would bring them under increasing pressure from litigants who need immediate help.

Another tactic is not to confront the protesters. Lawyers' processions in all the major cities went largely unchallenged by the police on Wednesday.

Gen Musharraf has also against stated that he believes in press freedom and apologised for a police raid on the offices of a TV channel last week.

Two scenarios

But the problem lies in choosing a long-term strategy to tide over the present crisis.

Lawyers march in Karachi on 12 March
The legal community has been up in arms

There are two possible scenarios.

If the Supreme Judicial Council finds the chief justice guilty of misconduct and recommends his removal from office, protests may grow and draw in elements from a wider spectrum of civil society.

The problem stems from the apparent haste in which the government tried to get rid of the chief justice, paying little attention to legal intricacies involved.

Lack of planning on part of the government became evident when crowds of lawyers, political workers and other civil society activists spilled into the streets of all the major cities, with the agitation threatening to spiral out of control.

The government's response was one of utter surprise and nervousness.

Its main trouble-shooters - Pakistan's ministers for law and information - failed to satisfy critics who insisted that the president had no constitutional powers to restrain a judge.

Losing credibility

A belated explanation by Gen Musharraf that he actually sent the chief justice on forced leave under a 1975 law did not cut much ice with the critics who were quick to ask why this was not mentioned in the official handout of 9 March.

The government lost further credibility when it failed to produce a complete charge sheet against the chief justice during the first two hearings.

The third hearing, which was to take place on 21 March, has been postponed until 3 April - an indication that the government's case is still not ready.

Protest in Islamabad
Gen Musharraf's challenge lies in diffusing the situation

In addition, Gen Musharraf undermined his credentials as a "visionary" when he admitted in a television interview that restricting the movement of chief justice was a "tactical error" on part of his government.

"I am a simple soldier and do not understand the niceties of legal processes," he said.

Pliability

Observers expect further problems later this month when the chief justice embarks on a programme to address the bar councils at Rawalpindi and Peshawar.

They believe that a judicial council verdict that is unfavourable to the chief justice will fuel the protests, and may even translate into mass agitation, a risk which the government does not appear ready to take at the moment.

Alternatively, a verdict favourable to the chief justice will quell the protest campaign but may defeat the very purpose for which he was removed in the first place, they say.

Dr Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political and defence analyst, argues that Gen Musharraf's primary source of power is the army, which he heads and which has enabled him to put in place a political system based on the unity of command.

So he argues that it is crucial for Gen Musharraf to hold both the presidency and the post of head of the army for his own survival and that of his political system, as he himself demonstrated in 2004 when he refused to doff his uniform despite having promised to do so.

With the 2007 elections just around the corner, he needs a pliable judiciary which could legalise his re-election without forcing him to give up his uniform.

He also needs the judiciary to lend a helping hand in case some "unwanted" political leaders, especially those in exile, attempt to return to the country or employ other means to influence election results.

Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry has shown that he is not such a person, says Dr Rizvi. "He demonstrated his autonomy in several matters and embarrassed the government on several occasions."

The question is, will he be open to an offer that provides him with an honourable and trouble-free exit from the scene without damaging Gen Musharraf's prospects for another term in office?

Top officials have indicated in private meetings that such an offer may already be in the making.


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